I am a classroom teacher and I want isolation booths

30 Jun 2019, 5:00

Isolation rooms are calm, orderly environments with a clear routine. And behaviour is better in schools that have them, says Steve Garnett

The older I get the more irked I become by the nonsense on social media, especially from EduTwitter types who should know better. Some people seem to have lived their career in a bubble, either protected from the realities of a typical state school or having superhuman powers – such as those who proclaim they have never had, not once, a behaviour problem in their class. Most teachers see through this façade; they know the realities and they understand the pressures of classroom teaching, each and every day.

So when the argument that isolation rooms were akin to solitary confinement reared its silly head again, I decided to have a rant on Twitter. Once more, those who wished to ban isolation rooms, booths or no booths, were likening them to draconian dumping grounds, where vulnerable children, like in those images of Albanian orphanages we recall on our TV screens, were left unsupervised, unfed, unwanted. Prevented from using the toilet, children were spending their days in filth and squalor, the dregs of the school community put there by brutal, uncaring neocons, forced to stare at a wall and punished at every tiny facial movement.

No one pretends that solitary confinement is a pleasant experience. I have worked in a young offenders’ institution and solitary confinement is not pleasant: the cells are sparse, young people are locked up, the wing is bare and the exercise yard small. But there are also books – yes, you read that right, books – and there are wonderfully caring and compassionate adults who desperately want their charges to return to the general population.

Of course, it should not be a pleasant experience. Those in solitary confinement have erred within the prison. Some of the prisoners have committed the worst of crimes and yet the state and society expects them to be treated with respect and humanity, and huge efforts are made at their rehabilitation. If you have not been into a young offenders’ institution, you would be amazed at how much intervention these children are receiving from a huge variety of experts and professionals. The question is, will they take their chance?

Behaviour is better in schools that have them

And this is exactly where the similarity to isolation rooms lies; not in the Dickensian satire that some believe isolation rooms to be, but in the genuine, truthful portrayal of what they actually are. Isolation rooms are parts of a school where children are placed short-term because their behaviour is compromising safety or disrupting learning. They are calm, orderly environments with a clear routine. Children are given work and their education continues under the supervision of teachers. Booths can facilitate this, just like in academic libraries.

As a classroom teacher, I want them. I have worked in schools with and without them. Behaviour was always better in the former. Rightly, there is an element of punishment in being placed there and for most children this is enough to ensure they never see the room, let alone sit in it. For those that do, it is an opportunity to reflect on their behaviour, to seek an understanding of what went wrong and learn for next time. This is key, for isolation rooms are preventive and a pressure valve. They are there to protect learning and to unlock the child’s potential.

Clearly, there have been a few instances of malpractice. We should condemn placing students in them for long periods. They are also not appropriate for all SEND children.

Official guidelines may be needed, but instances of malpractice should not be used as an excuse to ban them. Get isolation rooms right and they are a superb tool in ensuring the safety and learning of all students and like solitary confinement, are designed ultimately, for the benefit of all.

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  1. Tom Burkard

    I agree that teachers need to be able send pupils out of class when they are abusive or disruptive, and this is particularly true when a SLT are trying to get a grip on a school which has previously had lax management.

    However, the best schools seldom need to use such draconian punishments. When pupils are making good academic progress, they are very seldom disruptive. This of course demands that deficits in basic skills and knowledge are dealt with–and this in turn requires the use of objective assessments. When you consider the hue and cry against something so basic and innocuous as the Phonics Check, it’s not hard to understand why behaviour has become such a major issue. The profession has indeed made a rod for its own back in eschewing routine tests.

  2. keith stevens

    I copied my teacher who hit me.
    I copied my teacher who shouted, screamed, humiliated and belittled me.
    I copied this when I became a parent.
    Reading out loud was banned or reduced with the result there’s a lot of illiteracy in society, poor parenting not helped by reading.
    Socialism kept many parents badly educated so those parents would vote Labour then kept them there by giving them large benefit payments.
    I left school barely able to read but fortunately broke the cycle when I helped in a school and finally learnt the truth.
    School has gone up a blind alley and has no friends, just my opinion.

  3. Hi Steve. I do not mean to be insulting but I fear that you know no better. I am not surprised because the marketisation paradigm has largely won and brought about such declining standards that abusive forms of discipline that would never in the past have seen the light of day are now widespread. You say that you have seen correlations between the lack of firm punishments and indiscipline. I suspect that you have only worked in Academies. In my inner urban headship school we had no punishments at all and no exclusions, permanent or fixed term. Every OfSTED report commended the excellent behaviour of our students. This is how it was achieved.


    • Mark Watson

      Yup, would have been amazed if Roger hadn’t piled in here and:
      (a) claimed that the author didn’t know as much as him;
      (b) tried in some tortuous way to use it as a way of bashing academies.

      Of course the really embarrassing point, given your patronising comment that “I suspect that you have only worked in Academies”, is that 10 seconds of online research would have shown you that the school Mr Garnett teaches at is actually a community school run by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Whoops.

      I was going to congratulate you on not using it as an opportunity to plug your book, but then I clicked on the link and saw that you had plugged it in the very first sentence of your article. Oh well.

      I would respectfully suggest that your response falls 100% into the category Mr Garnett described as “EduTwitter types who should know better”.

  4. I confess that I misread relatively benign ‘isolation rooms’ as ‘isolation booths’, which most definitely are an Academy invention to which I refer in this article.


    “When in the booths, children are not allowed to “tap, chew, swing on their chairs, shout out, sigh, or any other unacceptable or disruptive behaviour”.

    “You will be allowed to go to the toilet up to a maximum of three times during the day (maximum five minutes per visit),” the policy reads. “You must use the closest toilet and go directly there and back. You will be escorted to get your lunch, but you must stay silent.”

    Pupils may complete work they have brought themselves but they do not have to.

    Another mother, whose son goes to a school in Yorkshire run by the Delta Academies Trust, said he was “just a regular kid” and there had never been serious concerns raised about his behaviour before the school’s new discipline policy was introduced.

    “Then he got 22 hours in an isolation booth in one week and he was just an absolute mess,” she said. “He came out at the end of the day and he didn’t look well. His legs were shaking and he could hardly string a sentence together. He looked completely done in.”

    For the record, I am not uniformly critical of Academies. Part 4 if my book,
    ‘Case Study of the role of Admission Systems in successful schools’ is a study of Mossbourne Academy in Hackney. This is a quote from Section 4.13.

    “Academies however differ from Community comprehensives in one vital respect. They have the power to set their own Admissions Policies and it is here that a gulf of opportunity opens up that is not normally available to LA schools, which are bound by the Common Admissions Policy of the Local Authority. Religious schools have more freedoms, which many exploit with some vigour, but Academies only have to get the approval of the Secretary of State for Education for their Admission Policies and that has usually been readily forthcoming even for arrangements that may disadvantage neighbouring LA schools. The most important of these freedoms has been the right to have banded admissions policies driven by Cognitive Ability Testing. The enormous significance of this has been explained at length and in detail. Mossbourne started life with this huge advantage over other Hackney schools, but in co-operation with the Learning Trust, has been happy to join a common admissions system ceding much of the responsibility for secondary transfer, in effect, to the Local Authority. This includes distribution of prospectuses, the co-ordinating of open evenings and communicating the process and its outcomes to parents.

    Mossbourne is indeed a very good school but all its successful practices are, in principle, transferable to LA schools. In Hackney, but not elsewhere, this has included its crucial CAT based banded admissions system.

    I am not ‘plugging’ my book. It does however contain the learning theory and background arguments to my website articles in much greater detail, which renders them easier to understand.

  5. Mark Watson

    It sounds as though you’re saying you were so intent on bashing academies that instead of actually reading the article you just cracked on with insulting the author. “I do not mean to be insulting but I fear that you know no better” is pretty much as insulting as you can be. If someone starts a sentence with “I don’t mean to offend you” you can guarantee that the next thing they say is intended to be as offensive as possible.

    So given your confession, and given than you presumably accept your assumptions were wrong, will you now be apologising to Steve Garnett?

    • Mark Watson

      Sorry Steve, doesn’t look like you’re getting an apology from Roger for his baseless insults.

      Still, best of luck with your teaching career. I’ve got no idea about whether isolation booths (or isolation rooms) are a good thing or not, but you come across as someone who cares about what they do and wants the best outcomes for the children you’re responsible for.