Viewers of Gareth Malone’s latest offering on BBC 2, The Choir: Our School by the Tower, will have seen one of the show’s stars in isolation, away from his classmates during the school day. While we can make no comment, obviously, on the circumstances that led to this, it was interesting to see the scene on a mainstream programme. Isolation booths/rooms are a feature of life in many schools across the country, used by teachers to help modify behaviour.
Love them or hate them, isolation booths are undeniably controversial. While in some schools they are used as a temporary space for contemplation and calming, in others their use stretches beyond what some may call reasonable – putting very young children in public isolation, keeping children in isolation for days at a time, and using minor infringements of rules as justification for isolation.
Opponents of this strategy for behaviour management are vocal about their concerns. Richard Burgeon, Shadow Justice Secretary, has called for national action on the practice. He has said some children are put in isolation for relatively minor reasons and that the booths he has seen in use in some schools would not be acceptable to use in prisons. These are emotive views strongly rejected by some and welcomed by others.
The campaign, BanTheBooths, exists to remove “deep confinement booths” in all schools. They also want to see the regulation and reporting of all children isolated for more than half a day, and funding to support schools in shifting from isolation booths to “better practice”.
Paul Dix, BanTheBooths campaigner, explains why there’s a movement for change: “The booth is not just a physical barrier. Isolation also involves restricting movement: don't look to the left, right or down to the floor, only stand twice a day, have restricted toilet breaks and certainly no movement of the lips. It is also an emotional punishment. A week in an isolation booth wreaks of revenge.”
Yet for some, removing isolation as a punishment means weakening a teacher’s position in the classroom. The pressures on teachers are such that their performance is judged on the outcomes achieved by the pupil they teach. Disruptive behaviour challenges that and it is inevitable that teachers will feel additional stress in the classroom if they are not able, sufficiently, to address what pupils are doing. In a blog from October 2018, “Behaviour Guru” Tom Bennett stated that, “using isolation booths is a perfectly normal, useful and compassionate strategy that is so common across the school sector that anyone expressing shock to discover it has, I can only assume, [spent] very little time actually working in a school.”
However, Paul Dix explains that, “separation to regroup, a pep talk at the right moment and returning to learning is often the right response to disruptive behaviour. Being removed to a boothed room for days or weeks is a cruel and unusual punishment. It is unnecessary, disproportionate and is always a symptom of deeper issues with behaviour policy and practice.
“In isolation booths there is no education, just punishment. Days of sitting facing a wall with a worksheet would make a well adjusted adult crumble. Yet at the extremes of the system this cruel and unusual sentence is being meted out to the most vulnerable children.”
BanTheBooths believes that isolation booths “are a breach of the United Nations Charter on the Rights of the Child”. It states that they are “disproportionate and unnecessary”.
On such an emotive topic, we may never reach consensus. There seems to be widespread condemnation of the more extreme uses of booths, particularly for spurious reasons, but there are many still who argue that while not ideal, schools must have this option in their strategies for behaviour modification. Perhaps the last words should go to two of the teachers I spoke to when researching this piece. Both worked in schools with isolation booths. I asked them, would you be happy for your son or daughter to spend time in a booth?
“Oh yes,” said one.
“No,” said the other. “And it makes me very anxious when I have to follow the school’s policy on isolation when sending someone else’s child to a booth, because they do not have the desired effect. It’s a huge source of workplace stress for me.”
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About the author
After graduating with a degree in Politics and International Relations from the University of Reading, Elizabeth Holmes completed her PGCE at the Institute of Education, University of London. She then taught humanities and social sciences in schools in London, Oxfordshire and West Sussex, where she ran the history department in a challenging comprehensive. Elizabeth specialises in education but also writes on many other issues and themes. As well as her regular blogs for Eteach and FEjobs, her books have been published by a variety of publishers and translated around the world.