Exclusions and extreme punishments are becoming the norm in the English education system

Roger Titcombe's picture

The Guardian of 2 September 2018 carried this story from which I quote as follows (in italics).

Parents have criticised the use of isolation booths at secondary schools across the country, after concerns were raised about the “zero-tolerance” behaviour policies run by some academy trusts.

Guardian analysis found this week that 45 schools in England excluded at least 20% of their pupils in the last academic year. The Outwood Grange Academies Trust – which runs 30 schools across Yorkshire, the Humber and the east Midlands – ran nine out of the 45.

Outwood Academy Ormesby in Middlesbrough topped the list, with 41% of its pupils receiving at least one suspension in the last academic year.

Parents with children at schools in the trust raised concerns that, as well as the high levels of exclusions, many schools were also using “consequences rooms” – small booths in which a child sits alone and in silence for hours on end as punishment for breaking school rules.

According to Outwood Grange Academies Trust’s behaviour policy, “the rule when in detention and in the consequences room is occupy and ignore”.

“Students cannot sleep or put their heads on the desk. They must sit up and face forward,” it adds.

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.

The ‘isolation booth’ punishment described in the Guardian article appears to go further than ‘solitary confinement’, which is banned for children under a UN Convention.

In December 2015, the United Nations General Assembly formally adopted the Nelson Mandela Rules, the revised 122 Rules of the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The Mandela Rules “represent a universally accepted minimum standard for the treatment of prisoners, conditions of detention and prison management, and offer essential practical guidance to prison administrations.” The Mandela Rules state that solitary confinement “shall be used only in exceptional cases as a last resort for as short a time as possible and subject to independent review.” The revised UN Rules also reiterate that solitary confinement should be prohibited for children.

According to the Guardian article the ‘small booths’ used to ‘isolate’ the child, not only restrict the vision of the child, but a strict posture is required to be maintained at all times during the many hours over which the child may be detained in this way. (Students cannot sleep or put their heads on the desk. They must sit up and face forward – children are not allowed to tap, chew, swing on their chairs, shout out, sigh, or any other unacceptable or disruptive behaviour).

‘Solitary Confinement’ as defined in the prison system refers to locking the prisoner in a cell and denying them human contact, but they are presumably allowed all the other freedoms denied to children forced to occupy these isolation booths. Presumably the consequence for a child getting up and walking away from the booth, or a parent going up to the school and insisting on their liberation would be permanent exclusion and the consequent loss of the right to a normal education. The child would be referred to the Local Authority, probably found a place in a Pupil Referral Unit and so denied access to mainstream teaching with disastrous implications for life chances, not to mention mental health. Local parents would know this from the school’s exclusion record.

The Guardian article goes on as follows,

Like Outwood Grange, the Delta Academies Trust, which runs 46 schools across the country, said pupils were given a number of warnings before being put in isolation and that wraparound support was provided for them.

“It is not unusual in secondary schools for students to have periods of time in isolation as a result of persistent defiance and disruptive behaviour,” said a spokesperson.

“This is the case in both local authority schools and academies and is an effective measure to reduce low-level disruption and truculent behaviour, which is widely reported as having a deleterious effect on the quality of education in our country. Obviously students who are in isolation will complain they don’t like it; that is because it is a punishment for disrupting other children’s education.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is up to schools to decide what forms of discipline they adopt, as long as they are lawful and used reasonably. If a school chooses to use isolation rooms, pupils’ time in isolation should be no longer than necessary and used as constructively as possible.”

Has the DfE considered whether these isolation booths are ‘rooms’ or in fact smaller confined spaces in which natural instinctive actions of children are forbidden? The Academy in question appears to rule out any educational function for the isolation booths, which are for punishment purposes only. Does this meet the DfE requirement that ‘forms of discipline’ should be as constructive as possible? What happened to the principle of ‘in loco parentis’? Does it still apply? Teacher training taught us that any actions we took in our role as teachers must be consistent with the actions of a reasonable parent. How should social workers judge the use of ‘punishment booths’ by the parents of teenage children?

I have written many articles relevant to this Guardian story. Here are a few.









Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


agov's picture
Tue, 04/09/2018 - 12:29

Not to say it doesn't sound extreme but presumably the difficulty would be that there "is no universally agreed-upon definition of solitary confinement, but it’s commonly understood to be ‘the social and physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cell for 22 hours or more a day" -


Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 04/09/2018 - 15:16

agov - I think the meaning of 'solitary confinement' is very clear and linquistically unambiguous. It means being compelled to occupy a small (confined) space on your own (solitary).

I can see the need to regulate the use of solitary confinement in penal institutions. But schools are not penal instititions. They are set up by the state to guarantee the entitlement of every child to a full, broad and balanced education. Penal institutions are set up by the state to inflict punishments upon those convicted of crimes in a court of law. "low-level disruption and truculent behaviour" are not crimes, nor would they warrant the punishment of solitary confinement if displayed by prisoners within our prison system. 

All schools have rules and ways of ensuring that they are followed in order to prevent the disruption of the learning of other students. Many schools set out 'sanctions' to deter such behaviour, but it is new for such sanctions to be designed purely to inflict extreme discomfort/pain, with no associated educational input. For this we have to go back to the days of corporal punishment, which has been illegal in UK schools for decades.

In my headship school, which was successively praised by OfSTED for outstanding pupil behaviour, we did not have punishments, but a 'behaviour curriculum' in which interpersonal skills including appropriate assertiveness (as distict from aggression or passivity) were actively taught and practised, with enormous success. Neither did we use exclusions, fixed term or permanent, and this for a white working class school with a mean intake CATs score of 85 (16th percentile) located at the centre of some of the most deprived electoral wards in England.

Our approach is described in detail here.

Appropriate behaviour in lessons was a departmental issue. Departments were expected to have appropriate, non-punishment, systems in place. For example, where reasonable compliance with the requests of the teacher could not be achieved, then there was a planned system of removal of said student from the lesson to be placed, with written work to be completed, at the back of the classroom of another lesson within the department in a different yeargroup. All departmental teachers were prepared for such an eventuality, which became a rare occurance.  The transferee never caused disruption when placed in a well behaved (they all were) class of younger or older pupils.

Other schools have other approaches, but I never in my entire teaching career in a number of schools and LEAs, ever saw anything remotely like 'punishment booths'.

This seems so out of order I have written to Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner. This is the letter that I sent today.

Dear Anne
 I note that you have a legal duty to promote and protect the rights of all children in England with a particular focus on children and young people who are in or leaving care, living away from home or receiving social care services. I doubt that the use of solitary confinement for many hours in 'punishment booths' requiring restricted compulsory posture would be acceptable in penal institutions or care homes let alone mainstream schools. 
I would be interested in your views about the practice described in this article.
Best wishes
Roger Titcombe

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 13:32

Agov, it isn't that this kind of treatment sounds extreme. It is extreme. It should have no place in any education establishment. School leaders who cannot grasp the conflict of interest with their primary moral obligation to educate and nurture the young people in their care, let alone accept the dehumanisation that such extreme practices promote, need help. Were I of a similar disposition, I would not hesitate to treat them with a generous dose of their own medicine.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 04/09/2018 - 17:25

Roger - if pupils are removed from lessons (and they should be if they are disrupting learning and haven't responded to classroom-based sanctions), then they should be expected to do work during their removal.  Anything less is a waste of time.

agov's picture
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 11:16

"the meaning of 'solitary confinement' is very clear and linquistically unambiguous"

So nothing to do with Mandela, the United Nations, legal definitions, and the prison system.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 04/09/2018 - 17:57

True Janet. And the last thing schools should be doing is wasting the time of any of their students by confining them for hours in punishment booths with nothing to do except feel the pain of their confinement. Neither will it do anything to promote the high quality peer/peer and peer/teacher relationships that are necessary for an effective learning culture in the school.

Telling is isn't teaching and listening isn't learning.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 05/09/2018 - 11:44

agov: I am just making the point that if solitary confinement is strictly regulated for prisoners convicted for crimes, and is illegal under UN conventions for children, it ought to be obvious that it should not be used to punish schoolchildren. Equally obviously, solitary confinement in prisons, where inmates are detained overnight in cells, takes a different form from solitary confinement in schools. In penal institutions the suggestion that prisoners could be confined in defined postures within 'punishment booths', in order to modify their behaviour, would be extremely controversial to say the least. It would be likely to be regarded as 'torture'.

As is often the case with your comments, I struggle to make out what point you are trying to make. Do you think 'punishment booths' in schools are fine then?

agov's picture
Thu, 06/09/2018 - 09:14

"Do you think 'punishment booths' in schools are fine"

What were the first words I used in this thread?

"I am just making the point" that there is nothing obvious about it being 'solitary confinement'. If you present entirely irrelevant points to make your case, while implying that your proposition rests on those points, you should not be surprised if they are questioned.
You sure you haven't fallen into bad company of late leading you astray and into 'you should all agree with us because we agree with each other' mode?

John Mountford's picture
Thu, 06/09/2018 - 16:17

These are the actual first words you used in your response in this thread, Agov.
"Not to say it doesn't sound extreme but presumably the difficulty would be that there "is no universally agreed-upon definition of solitary confinement, but it’s commonly understood to be ‘the social and physical isolation of individuals who are confined to their cell for 22 hours or more a day"
From this, I remain unclear whether you believe confining young people in a school setting in isolation booths in the manner described (a description never disputed by the schools in question) unacceptable or not. I am not questioning your right to disagree with my own views, merely commenting on the ambiguity of your comments. That said, the fact is, individuals are confined on their own for an entire school day, it would appear on repeated occasions. If this isn't enough to question the morality and legality of this practice, when you read about the restrictions to their freedom of movement, the unacceptable nature of this practice becomes all too clear.
The Guardian article outlines what I personally regard as inappropriate behaviour in the context of a school. The fact that neither Ofsted nor the DfE have a problem with such extreme measures comes as no surprise at all.
To repeat my earlier comment, "it isn't that this kind of treatment sounds extreme. It is extreme."

I am puzzled as to whether your remark about 'bad company' and 'you should all agree with us because we agree with each other' is a serious remark or just a clumsy attempt to provoke comment.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 08/11/2018 - 09:22

There is no sign that OfSTED is getting hold of off-rolling and exclusions. See this 6 November Guardian Education editorial.


"While the number of children leaving schools when they are aged 15 or 16 is rising nationally (from less than 0.1% seven years ago to 2% this year), and some large local authorities have seen rises of 4-5%, academies are losing more pupils than other types of schools. Guardian research this summershowed that the majority of schools that issued more than 20% of pupils with a fixed-term exclusion in 2016-17 were also academies.

Above all, there is the question of why it has been left to journalists and independent researchers to uncover the fact that schools are shedding pupils at such a rate. Earlier this year a study by FFT Education Datalab suggested that up to 7,700 pupils who should have been sitting GCSEs in 2017 were unaccounted for. In other words, while they had left mainstream schooling there was no evidence they had received an education elsewhere."

While the Guardian is right to draw attention to the fact that it is Academy schools run by Multi-Academy Trusts that are the overwhelming offenders, there is still a reluctance to recognise that these privatised schools lacking in any kind of democratic accountablility, local or national are part of an education landscape that is not only failing, but the number and nature of the failures are mounting with every month that passes. The Guardian editorial concludes:

"While many well-run academy trusts deliver excellent education, the patchwork arrangement has failed to deliver the promised improvements, and worrying gaps have appeared. These include failures in accounting and governance such as those at Bright Tribe, and the “zombie schools” left stranded when a chain has folded. They also include the thousands of pupils we now know are vanishing from school rolls each year. It is time for Ofsted to call schools to account for these children. In the longer term, we need a system with fewer, smaller cracks."

No Guardian, we need Academy and Free School MATs to be abolished and all state funded schools to be returned to democratic Local Authority oversight.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 12/11/2018 - 23:33

Only those with a vested interest in ignoring the abusive practices and processes associated with English education in these dark times, for ideological or financial reasons, would fail to be outraged by what is highlighted here. Again today, the BBC's Noel Titherage posted a horror story to more than match the Guardian's expose.

I read it and felt utterly outraged. The thing that bothers me most about this account is the response of Richard Sheriff, "executive head for eight schools - three of which have rooms with isolation booths - as well as president of the Association of School and College Leaders." He had this to say in response to questions from Mr Titherage - "his schools would never place pupils in isolation booths for five consecutive days, but understands why some schools feel the need to find ways of tackling extreme behaviour.

"There is a gathering storm with regards to student behaviour," he says.

"We've seen cuts in services in local authorities, but also in the ability of schools to purchase well-run, good quality alternative provision."

He says a lot of society's problems are now being "laid at the door of schools".

As an educator, does he not understand that applying the explanation that children should be held in isolation "no longer than is necessary", has the same validity as asking a blind man, how long a piece of string is? Clearly the advice, issued by the DfE, is phrased vaguely to leave its meaning open to interpretation. As in many of the cases reported in this investigation, such advice is open to systematic abuse. I would have hoped that all teacher unions would be lining up to challenge such treatment and looking to champion different solutions rather than building isolation booths, no matter how prettily decorated they may be.

It's about time Ofsted stepped in to act on behalf of children and young people who are being systematically abused by a system designed to enforce zero tolerance. Extreme behaviour does not spring out of thin air. It may reflect societal changes but it is up to schools to provide a culture of inclusion as a first step. Then, rather than resorting to the dehumanizing practices outlined here, headteachers should be overseeing pedagogical changes to teaching and learning.

This abuse, in response to a fear of losing control, could largely be avoided by providing cognitively challenging learning. We need, also, to ensure that pupils are supported in developing effective collaborative, problem solving skills in real-life contexts. Also, the promotion of deep learning is central to the development of pupils of all abilities as is the understanding that modelling the behaviours we want young people to exhibit is more effective than punishing them for a host of petty infringements with abusive treatments.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.