Can pupil isolation improve behaviour?

PUBLISHED: 08:54 16 November 2018 | UPDATED: 16:32 17 November 2018

Headteacher Jim Adams said the school funding cuts cannot be allowed to continue

Headteacher Jim Adams said the school funding cuts cannot be allowed to continue

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As a BBC report revealed that more than 200 pupils spent five straight days in isolation booths in England last year, Norfolk head teacher Jim Adams explains responsible isolation can support improvement in pupils’ behaviour

This week there has been a great deal of focus on school exclusions and the use of ‘Isolation Rooms’ in schools. One story covered by the BBC highlighted the fact that last year over 200 pupils spent at least five straight days in isolation.

There is a current tendency in education for small, vocal groups to adopt diametrically opposed points of view. Behaviour management is one such case. At one extreme we have the ‘no excuses’ attitude. Children are expected to conform absolutely to strict rules or face severe punishment. At the other end of the spectrum is the ‘unconditional positive regard’ philosophy. Here, poor behaviour is often seen as an outer manifestation of an unmet need. Punishment is often replaced with support and counselling. Somewhere in the middle is where you will find most schools.

The reason I mention this is because it explains the polarised reaction. Some are horrified by the thought of children being subjected to ‘barbaric’ isolation. Others applaud the robust response of ‘taking no nonsense’. This is particularly evident on social media platforms, such as Twitter.

In reality, most school leaders take a far more pragmatic view. On occasion, children make mistakes. They face a sanction, most learn from it and move on; hopefully a little older and wiser. The use of isolation or internal exclusion forms an important part of most secondary (and some primary) schools’ behaviour policy.

At a recent meeting of Norfolk leaders, I made the effort to ask how many secondary schools used internal exclusion or isolation. All had their own version.

The reality (away from the hyperbole) is that internal exclusion or isolation is a very effective way of improving behaviour in schools. Most schools use the sanction responsibly, with the intention of helping the young person to learn from their mistakes.

Importantly, removing a disruptive pupil from a classroom prevents unnecessary disturbance to the education of their classmates. Calm and orderly classrooms allow pupils and staff to flourish.

Most internal exclusion or isolation rooms are staffed by trained pastoral professionals. The best practice involves removed students not only completing work which is set and marked by their teachers, but also having some behaviour support. Students should be given the opportunity to reflect on their mistakes and also given the support and advice they need to improve their behaviour. This is usually for a short period of time; hours, on occasion days.

As part of a coordinated approach to maintaining good behaviour, these facilities are invaluable. They should be used sparingly and not purely as a punitive measure. The aim should always be not just to sanction, but to help pupils to improve.

The real benefit of isolation or exclusion rooms is that they help schools to avoid fixed term or even permanent exclusions. Children of school age should be in school, learning. I do not know of a single Headteacher who does not agonise over decisions to exclude (expel). It is one of the most difficult decisions a school leader can make. Any method for keeping children in school should be applauded.

Schools do not have anything like the support they once had for behaviour management. Local authorities and the health service are stretched and are not able to provide what they once did. This has left schools much more isolated. The result has been a national increase in exclusion rates. By internally excluding or isolating, schools are able to cut down on their external exclusions. This can only be a good thing for both pupils and families.

In summary, isolation or internal exclusion rooms are not medieval places of torment. They are usually well resourced, fully staffed facilities that provide respite, support and opportunities for personal development and learning. They are an important part of an organised programme for raising or maintaining standards of behaviour.

Jim Adams has worked in education for 24 years, 15 of them in senior leadership across primary and secondary schools. Currently Headteacher of Hobart High School and CEO of Clarion Academy Trust. I am also Vice Chair of Educate Norfolk, the professional association for Norfolk headteachers. @jim1902adams

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