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Not so splendid isolation

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Published on 16 December 2020

Impact of isolation booths
Impact of isolation booths

As schools continue to manage “behavioural challenges” especially with the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, a study cautions that school exclusions should not be the answer. 

The study - the largest into school exclusions in England, led by Sarah Martin-Denham, an academic with her research team at the University of Sunderland - was unveiled in the summer and found that major improvements are needed in the current system and has made a series of recommendations to government, to prevent more pupils from losing out on their education. 

Commissioned by Together for Children Sunderland, which provides children’s services on behalf of Sunderland City Council, the study sought to provide clarity on the experiences of children at risk of exclusion or those permanently excluded from school, and learn the factors leading to the exclusion and the impact on their lives, mental health and learning. 

One of the most concerning areas of the study was finding evidence of significant numbers of children, in some secondary schools, placed in isolation booths for large parts of the school year, compounding mental and physical health needs.  

Writing a commentary piece about the practice of isolation booths, Sarah Martin-Denham and Sir David Bell, Vice-Chancellor and Chief Executive at the University of Sunderland and a former permanent secretary and chief inspector of schools, consider the impact on young people and what the alternatives are. 


"Behind every exclusion lies a story. Adverse childhood experiences and learning difficulties usually figure in part or in whole.  

Yet, an increasingly common response to exclusion in secondary schools is the use of isolation booths. The use of isolation as a behavior sanction reflects newly published findings from the most extensive local study to date on school exclusion, carried out by the University of Sunderland. 

The Labour government introduced the concept of ‘remove rooms’ in 2008, with the intention they would be used for supervised (not statutory) education.  At the same time, schools have been under increasing pressure to raise educational standards, reduce school exclusions and keep ‘problematic’ children off the streets during school hours.    

As a result, the Sunderland study found significant numbers of children, in some secondary schools, being housed in isolation booths for large parts of the school year. Many of the children interviewed had been in isolation for more than a year, which could run to three years in the more extreme cases.   

In such circumstances, isolation booths seem to have become a dumping ground for children who need specific support, or a way of providing long-term respite for teachers and other children.  Yet, the impact on mental and physical health, learning and life outcomes is not hard to imagine.    

Evidence from secondary-aged pupils and their caregivers confirmed that some pupils were kept in isolation for longer than they felt was necessary. Many reported being sent to confinement for minor misdemeanors (too short a skirt, forgetting equipment, not completing homework).   

Another theme that emerged was that isolation booths are commonly used for complete isolation. In other words, some pupils were not taught or spoken to while they were confined to the booth during the school day.  This is a far cry from what was intended when the concept of ‘remove rooms’ was first introduced.   

Headteachers acknowledge that isolation booths are used when a pupil is disrupting the learning of others, though they accept that it is not appropriate for looked-after children. Plainly, this illustrates an understanding of the potential damage of isolation on children’s emotional wellbeing.     

Primary school headteachers provided a counterpoint to this approach, where the practice of isolation is minimal, and more focus is placed on inclusive and preventative interventions such as regulation walks and talking to staff.    

There is no large-scale administrative data available nationally about the use of isolation booths. This is a surprising omission. As one parent remarked, if they put their child in an isolation booth all day at home on the weekend, social services would quickly become involved.     

We need to consider how pupils on the edge of exclusion, and those who were on a fixed-period or permanent exclusion, react to a return to school if the practice of isolation continues. The issue is particularly pressing, with some much time lost at the end of the last academic year and the consequential impact on pupil attitudes and behavior.     

No-one underestimates the difficulties of dealing with highly disruptive children, but often the reason behind the behavior is not well understood. As a result, children become unable to cope and there is a detrimental impact on other children and teachers. 

But there is no evidence that isolation booths actually improve behaviour; in fact, our findings suggest that they make it worse.     

The pupils interviewed as part of the Sunderland study told us what they need to thrive in school. None of it is very surprising.   

The opportunity to talk to teachers and to be listened to and build connections; physical space and activities to restore calm; a desire to feel safe and be understood – what teachers would want for all pupils.   

Instead, too many pupils said they weren’t taught but often ignored, leaving them feeling humiliated and worthless. And such feelings were exacerbated with their struggles in class because of the number of other children, the lack of available support, the curriculum and testing demands, and difficulties with core skills such as reading and writing.    

There should be an urgent review of the Department for Education’s 2016 guidance on behaviour and discipline. In particular, there needs to be a sharper definition of what constitutes a ‘limited period’ when it comes to isolation.  

The current guidance states that ‘schools should ensure that children are kept in isolation no longer than is necessary and that their time is used as constructively as possible’. The evidence from our research highlights that this guidance is insufficient in safeguarding children’s mental and physical health and, indeed, is detrimental to learning.     

Of course, prevention is better than punishment and schools need the time and money to help those at greatest risk of exclusion. But where that fails, isolating pupils for long stretches of time is not the solution. 

Five in-depth research publications led by Sarah Martin-Denham, an academic with her research team at our University, make a series of recommendations to government, to prevent more pupils from losing out on their education.  

To reach the findings of the study, Sarah gathered the views of 174 participants, including 55 children aged five to 16. The children and young people had been permanently excluded, received fixed-period exclusions or were on the verge of school exclusions. Caregivers, health professionals, headteachers and special educational needs co-ordinators (SENCOs) also all gave their views through lengthy interviews.   

Some of Sarah’s findings suggest that mainstream schooling is having a detrimental effect on some children, particularly those with existing social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH) due to unidentified disabilities, learning and mental health needs.    

In her recommendations, Sarah advocates more training for teachers, and an increase in funding for health and education.  This needs to include early assessments of the barriers to learning in school and identification of underlying neurodevelopmental needs, and a structured approach to ‘managed moves’ between schools with a national recording system. 

One of the overwhelming positives was Sunderland’s alternative educational provision reported by the children and their carers during interviews. 

This is the second research study that Together for Children Sunderland has commissioned Sarah to carry out on its behalf. The first involved the academic exploring the numbers of children with special education needs (SEN) across Sunderland and assessing whether provision was adequately and ideally located to meet their needs. 

Together for Children Sunderland has recommissioned Sarah and her team to carry out research into services to support children and families who have been exposed to domestic abuse. 

What were the report’s findings?   

  • There are a multitude of enablers and barriers to mainstream education that are seemingly due to unidentified education and health needs  

  • Isolation booths do not improve behaviour but compound mental health and learning difficulties   

  • Good practice exists with children’s paediatrics though wait time across other health services are a barrier to support in schools  

  • All managed moves do not work without a formalised transition structure, based on person-centered approaches and thorough knowledge, understanding and empathy for the child’s learning and SEMH   

  • The development of relationships with teachers and friends is fundamental to creating a sense of belonging within the receiving school. Barriers to this occurring are zero-tolerance systems that have a lack of leniency or reasonable adjustment  

  • Assessment, identification of learning and SEMH needs are core to ensure that reasonable adjustments are applied in a timely manner to support successful and ongoing integration into the new school.  

 What were the study’s recommendations?   

  • Local training for senior leaders in education to clarify the legal position on the use of managed moves, making it explicit that they cannot be used where a child has additional needs or a disability that the school are unable to cater for:  

  • Training for school staff on the particular needs of children with disabilities, mental health and/or learning needs to ensure effective and timely evidence-based support  

  • Early assessment and identification of any underlying learning and mental needs prior to planning a managed move, to ensure each and every need is planned for  

  • Support for caregivers and siblings who have children struggling with mainstream education  

  • Implementing a monitoring system alongside school exclusions data records to analyse the number of managed moves each child has attempted and the reasons for their failing/ the length of time each child attended the managed moves school 

  • A review of the terminology used such as ‘referral units’ and ‘alternative provision’ due to the stigma attached to these schools.   

What happens next?  

Sarah has presented the research findings to the Dame Carol Black Independent Review of Drugs and DfE policy makers calling for changes in wording in the Behaviour and Discipline in Schools and Exclusions from Maintained Schools guidance to ensure schools must identify the underlying reasons for behaviours and to review the use of isolation booths as a behaviour sanction. 

This study builds on last year’s Timpson Review, which made 30 recommendations to ensure school exclusions are used appropriately and the Government commits to new school accountability. There are plans to seek funding to widen the research beyond Sunderland and the north east of England, to determine whether a similar picture exists across the country.  

To access the research go to: 

Executive Summaries 

Full Reports