Lose the Booths?

The Isolation Room in StalagLuft III runs out of A4 lined paper again

In the light of the forthcoming conference, Lose the Booths, and the fact that the issue has recently made headlines in the national media, I thought it was worth revisiting an earlier blog on the topic, as someone who still works in schools, albeit at a lowly, part-time level now, but who was once a Deputy Head helping to implement a system of enlightened withdrawal from classes. So, here goes….

I’ve followed the recent debate on the use of isolation rooms in schools with some interest. It seems to have divided opinion, with a vociferous group condemning their use matched by an equally passionate opposition who take the view that staff and students need to be protected from the disruption to teaching and learning that poor behaviour usually brings. I wonder if the two sides are as implacably opposed as they appear.

At the last school I worked in as a Deputy Head, a school that could reasonably be labelled “challenging”, the isolation room was an essential component of our behaviour management strategy. We called it “Inclusion” to try and signal that students were placed there as an alternative to exclusion. We were actively trying to keep them in school. When I first arrived at the school the room exhibited all the very worst characteristics of an isolation room. It was staffed by a motley collection of odds and sods, who just happened to be free at that time (including NQTs!). It was in a tiny room with a handful of graffiti -covered desks, no window, no computer and, most of the time no books, paper or equipment. Some students were placed there for days at a time. Some students placed themselves there, to escape lessons and to meet their mates for a bit of R and R.

We appointed a behaviour specialist to run it, moved it to a large, airy, well stocked room and linked it to the SEN department. Over the years it was staffed by outstanding individuals, most of them not teachers, whose skill and dedication brought about genuine and positive changes for many damaged students. We had exciting plans for its development. We intended to link it to SEN formally and have two distinct wings: a temporary short- term penal institution with strictly enforced rules and a work programme that mirrored the classes they had been removed from. The second wing was for an alternative curriculum provision for groups of up to fifteen students. This could be for a month. It had specialist subject teachers attached to it as part of their timetable and we devised therapeutic programmes with counsellors and specialists to help these students address and confront some of their issues.  The aim was for them to be readmitted to the mainstream at the end of their programme. It took a lot of negotiating and planning to set it up, but finally we were ready to implement the new system.

And then, after dodging the austerity bullet for several years, we couldn’t avoid it any longer and we had to cut. We could not afford to set it up as we had planned. It stayed as it was, still doing stirling work. And then we had to cut again. And again. And make the brilliant, skilful staff redundant, or move them out of behaviour provision and into delivering mainstream classes. By the time I left, it was just about functioning as a sinbin. And it could have been so much more than that.

Isolation, inclusion, whatever you want to call it, is necessary. The option of removal of a student from class has to exist, for the good of everyone concerned. But it can only be justified if it fits some kind of model similar to the one described above. And, no matter what the apologists say, its blindingly obvious that too many versions of withdrawal, in schools across the country, do not match up to this model of best practice. And every system that condemns challenging students to harsh, isolated, punitive supervision regimes, without proper access to expert teaching and appropriate curriculum, brings all withdrawal systems into disrepute.

There were staff at my school during this implementation described above, who completely misunderstood the purpose of Inclusion. For them it was one of a range of punishments, alongside detentions, exclusions, meetings with parents and governors. These people would openly advocate removing students from classes for days at a time and they didn’t much care what they did when they were banged up. The idea that removal was not a punishment, but a measure intended to protect the class they had come from, and an opportunity to flag up a student with issues and actually do some therapeutic work with them, was anathema to them. In their eyes, these kids had forfeited any right to teaching and learning and needed to be got rid of. They could only understand the internal aspect of this kind of removal as a necessary evil in terms of protecting the school from the consequences of racking up too many exclusions.

Looking back, it seems clear to me that isolation rooms, or whatever you choose to call them, only work if they are properly staffed and resourced and if there is a commitment to work with the students in there, rather than simply getting them to copy in silence, the educational equivalent of solitary confinement. Even Steve McQueen had a baseball and a glove. That was the trouble with those Prisoner of War camps. They just weren’t tough enough. Students should not be left in there for days on end, and neither should staff, unless that is their interest in terms of their career development. The trouble is, I suspect this controversy stems from the fact that the tough, zero tolerance devotees amongst headteachers will not see a problem with solitary confinement.

This is a new breed of ambitious senior leaders – openly contemptuous of ideas of rehabilitation or restorative justice, with no regard for the nuance, flexibility or judgement essential to the successful operation of social organisations like school. In their eyes, these are the ideas of a discredited liberal progressive establishment, and they want nothing to do with them. Populist, common sense ideas that can be badged with a slogan of not more than three words is what they want. It seems to me that children, whether they are complying with the school or not, deserve more than that.

There are very few educational ideas that are intrinsically good or bad in themselves. A rubbish Senior Leadership, that hasn’t read the “How to be an emotionally intelligent human” manual, can poison the most enlightened, liberal initiative. Just as an example, I used to work in a school that completely ruined Charity MUFTI days. The kids were asked to donate a pound for the privilege of wearing their own clothes for the day, with all proceeds going to the charity they had chosen. Pretty standard practice, huh? And this, believe it or not, turned into smiling, happy kids being confronted by stern faced suits at the school entrance, making them wait silently in line while they handed over their “donation”. And, of course, some of them were from families that didn’t have two pennies to rub together, never mind a pound. At a stroke, charitable engagement turned into a Sheriff of Nottingham type tax grab and the day started with a sour confrontation.

If they can’t even get that right, I certainly wouldn’t trust them to run an isolation room.

“Flattening the grass” and the ethics of behaviour management

It sounds like the sort of thing the servants might have been tasked to do before a nice picnic on the lawn in gentler times, but the metaphor conceals a more sinister practice. In the last week, allegations have emerged of Academy Chains using this tactic to establish new zero tolerance regimes in recently taken over schools. John Tomsett, Headteacher of Huntingdon school in York, posted, “ Later in the week I heard of a MAT-endorsed behaviour ethos-setting exercise called “flattening the grass” rolling assemblies. Allegedly, this involves the MAT executives visiting the school, en masse, to stand around the edge of the assembly hall whilst the head of school outlines, in emphatic terms to year group after year group, the MAT’s expectations of students’ behaviour. Before the assemblies begin, individual students are identified for the head of school to single out in front of their peers until they cry. If the head of school is not emphatic enough, the MAT CEO walks forward, replaces the head of school and concludes the assembly in a more suitably emphatic manner. The students are the “grass” which is “flattened” by the experience.” https://johntomsett.com/2019/02/03/this-much-i-know-about-behaviour-management-flattening-the-grass-and-mary-myatt/

This allegation, condemned for a while on Twitter until it all went quiet, has resurfaced in Schools Week in an article by John Dickens which accuses The Outward Grange Trust and the Delta Academies Trust, both of which run many schools in the north of England, of routinely adopting these practices. The article quotes unnamed employees of the OGAT trust and the allegations are backed up by testimony from parents and students. When the TES asked OGAT to respond to the allegations they were not denied and subsequently they have employed a “political and media relations firm”, Abzed, to handle the fallout.

What madness is this? How have we got to this point? The response to these allegations by critics thus far has been wholly inadequate: mild, tentative and questioning. A raised eyebrow rather than a full-throated roar of condemnation. “Flattening” students until they cry? This is a practice with more in common with psychological torture and interrogation techniques than with school behaviour management. They are children for goodness sake, children for whom the organisations in question have a duty of care. I’m sure that every member of staff in these schools wears their ID lanyard (too fearful of being “flattened” themselves, no doubt) and they have been granted the Ofsted tick for safeguarding. But I have no doubt that the pupils at these schools are far from being “safe”.

The real tragedy here is that we have constructed a culture where this is no longer remarkable. The smack of firm leadership is de rigeur these days. The “I make no apologies for insisting on the highest standards” brigade have been allowed to chip away at civilized norms of institutional practice so that just about anything goes. The end justifies the means it seems and anyone who challenges that is dismissed as a bleeding -heart liberal. And so these ghastly practices spread slowly and insidiously until the fabric of the system is riddled with them.

It has to stop. Now. There needs to be an immediate official enquiry and a statement from the DfE condemning these practices in the strongest possible terms.