Schools are for learning, not imprisonment

10 June 2009
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A father’s refusal to allow his son to be punished in a school’s "isolation room" has focused the public’s mind on this form of punishment. According to the father, Andrew Widdowson, Ridgewood school in Doncaster has a darkened, poorly lit room where naughty children are sent which is "like Guantanamo Bay". His son was ordered to stay there for the day because he let down the tyres of a friend’s bicycle. From the description he gives, it sounds like a place where it is very difficult to work; there is no natural light and visibility is poor, while children have their backs to a supervising teacher in partitioned cubicles.

Having taught in a number of schools which have had similar rooms, the incident made me recall when I’d used them. In my days as a young teacher, in the early 1990s, I was very trigger happy about sending irritating kids to such places, ordering sniggering and bolshy pupils out of the class with a wave of my hand. It gave me a huge feeling of power; I could get rid of any child who annoyed me simply by filling in the relevant form and telling him – it usually was a boy – to make his way to the room. However, I began to notice that it was always the same pupils going there. Increasingly, they became rather too happy to leave my lessons. Indeed, spending time in the "cooler" – as one of my schools nicknamed it – was seen as cool. A really negative cycle occurred; pupils were simply opting out of learning anything and their behaviour was deteriorating as a result because the root cause of their disruption was never being addressed.

The "isolation room" is the educational equivalent of brushing unwanted detritus under the carpet. In some schools, they are no more than a dressed-up version of prison, depriving pupils of the liberty but giving them little else. Sometimes, they are supposedly validated by labelling any child sent to them for a day or more as an "internal exclusion". Unlike fixed-term and permanent exclusions, there are no official figures about the numbers of pupils sent to these rooms. Headteachers, anxious not to let their statistics be ruined by hefty external exclusions, are using internal exclusions to make sure disruptive pupils are dealt with "off the record".

In the best schools, pupils get on with meaningful, productive work when they are internally excluded, but I know of too many schools where they are effectively left to rot and are no more than child-minded by some very harassed teachers; asked to do lines, copying out or, in the more desperate institutions, permitted to play computer games. In effect, they are learning nothing. As the Children’s Rights Alliance for England has pointed out, by not expecting anything of them, the school is depriving them of the right to an education and contravening the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, these internal exclusions seem to disproportionately affect our most vulnerable children: looked-after children, pupils with special educational needs, children from poor and ethnic backgrounds. This is indirectly borne out by the statistics; while the results of children from most backgrounds have risen in the last decade, the poorest children’s results have remained static. Experience suggests that internal exclusions have played a role in contributing to the rock bottom levels of achievement of our most deprived children.

Instead of establishing containment cells for these children, more resources, thought and imagination needs to be put into schools to tackle underachievement and disaffection. With a bit of thought and training, troublesome children can be integrated successfully back into school and gain good qualifications. Charities such as Save The Children with projects like Ear to Listen have given children under the threat of an exclusion an advocate who looks into the causes behind a child’s misbehaviour, liaising between home and school. Piloted throughout the country from 2005 to 2008 in 10 boroughs as wide apart as Brent and Northumberland, it has had an 80% success rate in getting children back into mainstream classes and achieving more highly. I have seen myself how proper mentoring and focused small group work with difficult children works far better than confining them to dark, windowless rooms.

Let’s hope the case of Widdowson’s son brings this murky world to light. It is time that such rooms and processes were subjected to proper outside scrutiny. As a first step, the Department for Children, Schools and Families should make sure that proper figures about the number of internal exclusions are collected. Perhaps then schools will start to take the education of our most difficult children more seriously. Our schools should be about learning, not imprisonment.


  1. I’m in internal exclusion right now. The reason: I was gardening at a primary school for my secondary school, these primary school kids start harassing me and I just burst into a rage. All the blame has been placed on me, despite several witnesses who have written official statements confirming my point of view. We do work in internal exclusion but most of it is fill in the blanks’. I’m actually doing coursework on laptop but earlier it was just filling in the blanks. Sorry if spelling’s bad but I risk getting caught writing this.

    from Jack Galea
  2. You better get on with your work, but when you’ve got a moment, without revealing the identity of the school, please tell me more about the internal exclusion, is it a fair way of dealing with you?

    from francisgilbert
  3. at my school the policy states that is we mess arround they have got the right to put is in internal exclusion or in a office next to a member of slt if we get put in these rooms they then place us on behavour report or contract which basically means that they are able to monitor our ever move. we also have to stay for a hour same day we are in isolation. i can see why my this but i find it a bit annoying because if someone makes up rubish you get put in their. i only know all this because i am currently on a behaviour report my school say its a way of controlle but personally i dont think so

    from bridget
  4. We are fighting against internal exclusion now. It was dished out to my twins who were in a classroom during lunch when 2 of their “friends” started putting cellotape around chairs and tables. My girls insist they didn’t do it. One of my twins is very sensitive and has low self-esteem, both are very quiet and have never been in any trouble before. The teacher was intimidating, shouting and angry and insisted that it was about time that my children owned up to what they did, as she instantly believed them guilty. We, are their parents, believe they did not take part. The internal exclusion letter states “vandalism” but there was no damage, so they are saying they will change this to tampering with property. There were also plugs pulled out of sockets. We believe this was a silly prank and teachers are being very heavy handed over it. Earlier in the same week some Year 11s had done the same to a different classroom and nothing was done about that – the teacher just removed it. It took moments for the cellotape to be removed.

    The school are not willing to negiotate on the punishment. They are saying 2 out of 5 of the other children say my girls were involved and 1 out of 5 said they were egging the others on, therefore, 3 out of 5 chance they were involved. One girl has not had internal exclusion! My girls didn’t even know what a witness statement was – they were told to write what THEY did. They are in Year 10.

    from Sue B
  5. Sounds like a difficult situation. You can always appeal to the governing body if you feel you’re being treated unfairly. If your school is an LA school, you can also appeal to the LA.

    from francisgilbert
  6. My 14 year old grandson has just spent his second full day in isolation at school, It is called internal exclusion and he was given it as a punishment for trivial ‘offenses’. He had to stay in the classroom by himself all of the day inclusing lunch and break times. He doesn’t know if he will be in isolation again tomorrow.
    He has been diagnosed as having ADD and can be talkative. He is also well mannered, friendly and helpful. He gets into trouble at home for getting into trouble at school.
    I am worried about him becoming bitter and rebellious because he feels unfairly treated. And he is correct.
    Now that they can’t hit kids the teaching staff have found another way to make them suffer.

    from Emm
  7. You are 100% right – get put in there for the stupiest of reasons. No legislation and no official records of being in internal exclusion, so school can do whatever they want – their rules! Children are being punished when not to blame but school’s are being stupid as they are putting their own results down as children are missing out on valuable lesson time! Most teachers I’ve come across (and I volunteer at a school) should not be teachers – they are there for the wrong reason – money NOT the children. Maybe they should be tested in this area too! And re-tested regularly!

    from Jane J

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