Published: 13th August 2019
Illustration: Patch Plumber
It’s Ben’s* first year at secondary school. He knows the answer to a question, so calls it out instead of putting his hand up. For this, he is sent out of class to the isolation room, where he has to work in silence. His dad tells me: “It broke my heart. He looked at me and said ‘Dad, I knew the answer.’”
Throughout the rest of his time at Bristol Brunel Academy, Ben was constantly sent to isolation – sometimes two days a week – to the point that his parents feel he’s been “badly let down”. In Year 11 he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), but things didn’t change – he continued to be sent to isolation and had to revise for his GCSEs at home without extra support.
Ben is one of hundreds of kids who spend days in isolation on a regular basis. A Bristol Cable investigation has revealed all but two of Bristol’s state secondary schools are using some form of isolation policy, where students are removed from class. Data acquired via Freedom of Information (FOI) requests shows an increase of more than 30% in the use of isolation in recent years, as Bristol’s schools are sending kids there almost 1,000 times a week.
Isolation booths, where students sit facing the wall, have been used in some Bristol schools in the past, but now most schools instead use a classroom. Anywhere between 10 and 30 kids are supervised by a member of staff and work in silence, sometimes at individual desks.
New data reveals some schools have sent as much as half their entire student body to isolation, as kids sometimes miss multiple days a week of learning. FOI responses from schools and analysis of behaviour policy documents have uncovered variation in these policies, with almost half of schools putting students in their isolation room all day for disruption, while others use more supportive systems closely linked with pastoral care. A number of schools have no maximum time limit, do not let students out at lunchtime, and restrict when they can go to the toilet.
Although some schools defend the use of isolation rooms as vital for managing behaviour and removing disruptive kids who might stop others from learning, parents tell me their kids have missed out on huge chunks of learning and are being pushed from isolation to temporary exclusion.
Schools under pressure, unmet needs
Isolation rooms aren’t new. They have previously been used as a ‘sin bin’, where teachers would send kids without a clear policy, but now schools use them as part of proper behavioural systems.
But their use has come under scrutiny recently. Legal proceedings were launched against an academy trust in Yorkshire last year after a boy spent 35 days in isolation in one year, forcing them to review their policy. By comparison, this year a pupil at Metropolitan Academy in Bristol spent 42 days in isolation, and City Academy sent a pupil to isolation 128 times.
A spokesperson for the Cabot Learning Federation, which runs City Academy, Metropolitan Academy, and Brunel Academy, denied the schools used isolation, instead saying behavioural policies “includes a sanction of pupils being temporarily withdrawn from lessons, although neither is it overused, nor is it the only strategy used to support pupils’ behaviour”.
The government will be changing its guidelines on isolation to avoid legal action, after a girl in Kent tried to kill herself following over a month in an isolation booth earlier this year. Education solicitor Dan Rosenberg from the law firm representing these families, Simpson Millar, says: “It’s often the most vulnerable, and those with disabilities such as autism or ADHD who are most affected – the children of the families we have represented have been through very difficult and traumatic experiences as a result of repeated confinement in isolation.”
When I speak to Ben’s dad, this comes to mind. Ben has just finished his GCSEs at Brunel Academy, which is one of the schools to use isolation the most – 2,737 times so far this academic year. When Ben was first sent to isolation he wasn’t given work, and often just went to sleep. Only after his parents challenged this did he receive relevant work to complete.
His dad says Ben would get sent to isolation for talking and losing concentration, even getting up to sharpen his pencil, and having a milkshake thrown at him by his friend. “The way he’s been treated is outrageous,” his dad tells me. “He's not a bad kid. I think he's being discriminated against.”
Ben’s dad feels the school didn’t make enough allowances following his son’s ADHD diagnosis. “On the one hand the school were saying 'we recognise this’, but on the other hand they were kicking him out for any minor infraction."
Ben wasn’t allowed to revise for his exams at school, but instead had to work unsupervised at home, despite his difficulties with concentration. After exams he was escorted off school premises. “You’re made to feel excluded,” his dad says. "If he fails his exams, I'm going to blame isolation.”
Bristol Brunel Academy said their behaviour system is “adapted to meet the individual needs of students with additional needs”, employing a range of inclusive strategies.
Ofsted guidance says reasonable adjustments should be made to make sure expectations of pupils with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) are appropriate and fair: it would be unfair, for example, to isolate a child with ADHD because they can’t sit still.
Another parent I speak to has a different perspective. Her son, who has Asperger’s, benefits from isolation. He has a timeout card which he can use to take himself to the isolation room when he is struggling.
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However, one Bristol teacher tells me that although the Ready To Learn policy (a version of isolation) at their school does help manage disruptive behaviour, SEND pupils are isolated more often, even after allowances are made. They said this is because funding cuts have reduced the number of learning support assistants in the classroom to help pupils with additional needs. The teacher added that vague rules for SEND pupils and isolation meant teachers interpret them differently.
This view is echoed by Wendy Exton, from the teachers’ union NASUWT: “As teachers we are under pressure to produce results. Classes are getting bigger and support services have been cut to the bone, meaning students who have unmet needs are being moved regularly into isolation to allow the teacher to teach.”
As funding falls and expectations rise, it’s hard to blame teachers who send kids out so they can teach. But some argue it’s important to identify teachers over-reliant on isolation and give them training and support, because it’s not always down to ‘problem children’.
Dealing with disruption, setting boundaries
There seems to be a clash between the growing awareness about young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and restricting their freedom for extended periods – a form of discipline that, if misused, can be damaging for their mental health.
This is why it’s so crucial that isolation is linked with support, argues Alex*, a pastoral worker at a Bristol secondary school. “For the majority, it works really well… If it's truly punitive it won't work. You need to be able to go full circle. The relationship is damaged, there's a consequence for the actions, then there needs to be that restorative conversation to rebuild it.”
As well as this restorative conversation, Alex’s school gives students work using an online system and contacts the parents. Similarly, supportive systems do appear to be in place at some schools in Bristol. And for some it works. One parent at Bristol Free School tells me isolation allowed their son to work undistracted before his GCSEs. A teacher tells me how the Ready to Learn policy at their school is “very supportive for the majority of pupils”, as repeat offenders are monitored so that any unmet needs or underlying reasons can be addressed.
Schools must look into why kids end up in isolation and support them, Alex says. But it’s just as vital to set boundaries. “We need to help equip these young people so when they come to making choices later in life they can reflect on the consequences. Because otherwise we're just setting them up to fail."
When I ask about the variation in how much isolation is used, he points to kids from disadvantaged areas being more likely to have behavioural problems. It’s backed up by the FOI data.
For example, City Academy used isolation most often this year, on 4,805 occasions, but also has the most students eligible for free school meals – 63%. By contrast, schools in wealthier areas do appear to use isolation less, but the school with just 8% of kids eligible for free school meals still kept one pupil away from lessons for 16 days, and even put kids in booths until 2017.
It is worth noting that some schools using isolation frequently have been praised for behaviour management by Ofsted. City Academy was inspected earlier this year and staff praised the new behaviour policy, as exclusion rates went down for SEND and disadvantaged pupils.
Bristol has the fifth lowest rates of permanent exclusions in the country – just three in 2017/18. There were 3,819 temporary exclusions in the same year though – one of the highest rates in England. A number of parents feel isolation played a part in a downward spiral for their child, towards more serious sanctions and then having to move school.
Jayden* only started secondary school last September but is already on the brink of leaving. His mum tells me he’s lost a quarter of this academic year as he often has to repeat isolation the next day, meaning he misses prolonged periods of learning.
And it’s taking its toll, cutting him off from other parts of school life. "He hates isolation,” his mum tells me. “As a result, he doesn't enjoy being in the classroom because he's fallen so far behind. There's a complete contradiction when I'm speaking to school about how emotional health really matters yet they isolate your child for three days in a row."
He has also told his mum it’s often the usual suspects in isolation, who are predominantly black and minority ethnic (BME) boys. “The only time he would ever find himself in the majority with other BME children would be in isolation or with his family. That's a stark contrast,” she says.
After spending time at other schools in the same academy chain on fixed-term exclusions, and on negotiated transfer, he is back where he started, his future hanging in the balance.
Another parent is very nervous about speaking out, but tells me her son is being pushed out by his school and their “heavy-handed” use of isolation.
Recently, he says, he was sat in the sports hall reading a book, when a teacher spotted him looking around and sent him to isolation. “No, I haven’t done anything,” he said. “I’m not going.” This defiance led to a fixed-term exclusion. Now the school won’t let him return until he accepts his isolation, creating a stalemate where he’s sent home daily.
"He's shocked about how he's been treated,” his mum tells me. “He just can't understand why it's escalated like this. In his mind, he didn't do anything wrong. It's so shocking and I can see how kids get expelled. It's really scary."
I mention this case to Esther Keller, who used to work for Bristol City Council advising schools on behaviour. She is shocked: "That's outrageous. You shouldn't have a fixed-term exclusion for a referral to isolation room. That's very poor behaviour management, and the parent ought to complain.” Jayden’s mum has lodged a formal complaint.
Stricter guidelines to stop misuse
School discipline has come a long way since the corporal punishment last seen in state schools in the 1980s. Perhaps one day the use of isolation will be looked back on with similar scorn.
This issue clearly divides opinion. What comes up again and again is the variation in how these policies are used. While some schools isolate students for a few lessons, others take them out of class all day. Some schools do so for not having the right uniform or equipment, while others are much more flexible. Pastoral support is central at some schools, but not others. Even getting accurate and full data for this investigation was a challenge.
Underlying this issue is the fact that nearly all secondary schools in Bristol are now academies. First introduced under New Labour, but accelerated by Michael Gove, there are now more than 8,000 academy schools in England outside local authority control. Academy trusts have considerable freedom – from uniform and isolation policy to how much they pay their executives – because they are removed from local democratic oversight. Even greater power is handed to head teachers and senior staff. Sometimes this works well, other times it doesn’t.
Many schools have changed their policies in recent years: Metropolitan Academy isolates students more than 120 times a week, but has reduced the length of time from an entire day to three lessons. Cotham School used to isolate pupils for uniform breaches, but this has been relaxed, and now students there can’t spend consecutive days in isolation.
And yet it seems like other schools are much less flexible. One parent at Henbury School compared it to a “boot camp”, where students get sent to isolation for not having the right stationary and breaking uniform rules. This academic year Henbury School isolated pupils more than 100 times a week. Even though it has received the most complaints from parents, the school said they haven’t changed their policy in the last three years.
The school is being taken over by academy chain the Greenshaw Learning Trust this summer following an inadequate Ofsted rating in November. The Ofsted report said the school’s preoccupation with the new Ready to Learn strategy had diverted attention away from declining academic performance, and found disadvantaged pupils are removed from lessons more often. It also pointed out that the policy’s impact isn’t being evaluated.
A spokesperson for the Greenshaw Learning Trust said they were currently ensuring that “all the students are consistently provided with disruption free lessons”, adding the school regularly reviews and analyses referrals to the isolation room and the last review took place two weeks ago.
This variation between schools is why the law firm Simpson Millar successfully pushed the government to review its guidance on isolation. This won’t be before summer 2020, so Simpson Millar are calling schools to review their practices now.
Current guidance says pupils should only be kept in isolation for “a limited period”, but ultimately it’s up to individual schools to interpret this. Esther Keller thinks a time limit would help stop this variation. “Isolation rooms have their place if you use them appropriately. When misused, it might give the teacher more breathing space but doesn't do anything to improve the child’s behaviour.
“Ofsted needs to be looking at the policies they have, how inclusive they are, and getting the schools to use data to see how consistently these policies are being applied.”
She thinks problems with isolation, exclusions, and off-rolling, where students are pushed out of schools, are worse now than before. "Part of it is schools being in league tables and judged by exam results. I think it's in a very poor state, education, at the moment.”
Isolation is proving to be one of the latest touchstones in the debate around education, and what that means for the adults that come out the other end. What’s clear is that with schools under greater pressure, receiving less funding, and given greater freedom than ever, transparency and scrutiny is vital. Otherwise, parents like Ben’s dad and others will continue to feel like their kids have been let down at a critical juncture in their lives.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity
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