Time-out and isolation under scrutiny

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

At the National Education Union annual conference, delegates recounted stories about school isolation rooms filled with SEND children. It seems that the use of ‘time-out’ or ‘reflection rooms’ is increasing at primary level. Suzanne O’Connell looks at this growing trend and its place in school behaviour strategies

At the National Education Union (NEU) annual conference earlier this year, stories were shared about the use of isolation booths for hours on end and for minor rule breaking.

In 2018, Freedom of Information (FoI) requests sent by Schools Week suggested that more and more schools are using some form of isolation as part of their behaviour management policy.

They come under different headings and names, such as inclusion units, consequence booths, time-out spaces or calm rooms, but they all have the intention of removing the pupil from the classroom for extended periods of time.

The diversity of approach and names was recognised in the recent Timpson Review of School Exclusion (DfE, 2019), which stated: “In-school units, where children spend time out of their normal schedule on their own or in small groups (but which are not formally designated as SEN units or resourced provision) are common, and yet are extremely diverse in their approach and design.” (For more on the review’s findings, see out coverage: Exclusions Review: The implications for primary schools: http://bit.ly/2wKyY6B)

The practice is widespread among some academy chains and spans both primary and secondary provision and in his recommendations, which the Department for Education (DfE) has accepted, Edward Timpson has asked for more guidance and research into this developing trend.

At the same time, the DfE is currently facing a legal challenge over the lack of clear guidance for schools on the use of such rooms.

It comes after the attempted suicide of a girl with autistic spectrum disorder and mental health problems while in an isolation room (Guardian, 2019). In April the government was asked to review its guidance by a law firm acting on behalf of two families affected by the extensive use of isolation rooms. The government has asked for more time to do this although the law firm has pledged to launch a judicial review against the DfE if it fails to comply (Schools Week, 2019).

Currently schools are not required to inform parents about the use of isolation or time-out and there is no legal expectation that a school records their use.

Guidance states that isolation rooms should only be used for “a limited period”. Although schools are expected to include this strategy in their policy documents, many feel this is not enough.

The DfE’s Behaviour and discipline in schools guidance (2014) states that: “It is for individual schools to decide how long a pupil should be kept in seclusion or isolation, and for the staff member in charge to determine what pupils may and may not do during the time they are there. Schools should ensure that pupils are kept in seclusion or isolation no longer than is necessary and that their time spent there is used as constructively as possible.”

This, it is claimed, is insufficient in the face of the rising number of schools using isolation and the variety of approaches to be found.

The dangers of isolation

Schools are using many labels to describe this form of intervention. Some of those most frequently heard include time-out, isolation and consequence booths. However, other forms of withdrawal could also fall into this category, including the use of sensory rooms, calm rooms and reflection rooms.

There is a lack of any clear definition or boundaries for these types of withdrawal and schools are using them in very different ways. Many of them involve some form of seclusion and schools should be careful that they are not unwittingly behaving illegally in their approaches.

Seclusion is defined according to the Department of Health as: “The supervised confinement and isolation of a person, away from other users of services, in an area from which the person is prevented from leaving.”

This definition could be interpreted as contravening Article 5 of the Human Rights Act: the right to liberty and security. The “prevented from leaving” might not mean that the door is locked but could refer to a perceived or real threat.

Behaviour and discipline in schools says that schools can adopt a policy which allows for disruptive pupils to be placed in an area such as an isolation room away from others for a limited amount of time. However, only in an exceptional circumstance should the use of isolation prevent a child from leaving of their own free will.

There is a lack of clarity here over what exceptional circumstances might mean and there is a risk that isolation might be used unlawfully. For example if the presence of staff outside the door means that a pupil feels that they are unable to leave.

For some students with ADHD the use of such a facility would be very questionable and schools should be reminded of the SEND Code of Practice (2015) requirement to make reasonable adjustments.

Meanwhile, the Mental Health Act Code of Practice (2015) acknowledges the risks attached to seclusion: “Seclusion can be a traumatic experience for any individual but can have particularly adverse implications for the emotional development of a child or young person.”

Primary schools

The Schools Week FoI request found that primary pupils were also being removed from class and kept in isolation. One school was quoted as using a “reflection room” if pupils broke a rule for the fourth time and that this practice was used with children from year 1 upwards. Although periods of time of up to half-a-day were mentioned there were examples of pupils being isolated for a whole day.

Another academy trust reported the use of “intervention spaces” in relation to primary pupils and in some cases sensory rooms have also been used in a way that could be interpreted as isolating. The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that sensory rooms should only be used if the person has had a sensory assessment to identify their specific needs.

Whatever the choice of name there are those who believe money spent on staffing these rooms could be better allocated to preventative work with pupils instead. Others say that having these facilities prevents fixed-term and even permanent exclusions.

In support of their use

There are vast differences in the ways in which such rooms are used and not all those delegates at the NEU conference were in opposition to them.

Research conducted by IFF Research for the DfE (2018) found that some schools were using what they called an “internal inclusion unit” as part of a supportive environment. Some of these units included one-to-one support and a tailored approach to learning. In these cases the units were often described as giving students “a break” from their usual learning environment, their peer group or enabling them to access the curriculum in a more suitable way. They were generally seen as a way of schools avoiding excluding a pupil.

Senior staff and headteachers have argued for “time-out” as one of the escalating strategies that they use with challenging pupils. They believe that such methods provide a consequence for the actions of the pupil while also allowing the school to continue to function.

Existing advice for schools

The Centre for the Advancement of Positive Behaviour Support (CAPBS) recommends that time-out should not be used as a matter of course. In particular, it is concerned that the use of isolation as a punishment is difficult to justify, particularly when it comes to pupils with ADHD or learning difficulties. It has published guidance for schools (see further information).

Instead it suggests that a better approach is to programme in breaks and teach children how to manage themselves. It prefers the concept of “time away” to that of time-out. Pupils might request time away or a sensory break when things are tough for them.

CAPBS suggests that any intervention, such as the use of a sensory room or time away, should be built in to the child’s behaviour support plan. Where such an approach is included it should be seen as a preventative and proactive strategy to reduce the likelihood of the behaviour happening again.

It does not suggest, however, that reactive strategies should be completely prohibited. Plans can include methods to help a student calm down if they are upset or keep them and others safe if needed. However, there should be a clear indication of how the plan is monitored and how the pupil is being helped to develop skills for themselves.

Meanwhile, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) advises that reactive strategies should only be used as a last resort with the least restrictive alternatives being used first. Any restrictive interventions should be accompanied by a reduction programme and be “a reasonable, necessary and proportionate response to the risk presented”.

Guidance for the future

What seems to be clear is that schools are finding the need for this kind of facility, whatever name is used to describe it. Some schools are struggling to include some pupils in the mainstream classroom and in an effort to avoid exclusion are seeking other alternatives.

What is perhaps needed now is more guidance on what this might look like and what restrictions and limitations should be placed on its use. Following the NEU conference it was agreed that the union would undertake research into school behaviour policies and produce guidance for schools about this.

Meanwhile, Edward Timpson’s recommendations notwithstanding, the outcome of any legal challenge may force the DfE into a situation of making clearer recommendations. The NEU’s conclusions alongside improvements to the DfE guidance could provide a clearer understanding of how such facilities can be structured and used in a way that is not only beneficial to schools, but the pupils too.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information & resources

  • Timpson review of school exclusion, DfE, May 2019: http://bit.ly/2vHf0t0
  • Isolation rooms: How swathes of schools are removing pupils from their classrooms, Schools Week, October 2018: http://bit.ly/2JHbEiA
  • Mother sues over daughter’s suicide attempt in school isolation booth, Guardian, April 2019: http://bit.ly/2I4m5K2
  • DfE faces legal action over ‘confusing’ guidance on isolation booths, Schools Week, April 2019: http://bit.ly/2WbkaIw
  • Behaviour and discipline in schools: Advice for headteacher and school staff, DfE, February 2014: http://bit.ly/2YO5L6I
  • Investigative research into alternative provision, DfE, October 2018: http://bit.ly/2VORo0d
  • The use of seclusion, isolation and time-out, Centre for the Advancement of Positive Behaviour Support (CAPBS): http://bit.ly/2VOOrg4
  • Exclusions Review: The implications for primary schools, Headteacher Update, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2wKyY6B
  • Exclusion: Falling into the gaps? Anna Feuchtwang, Headteacher Update, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2ZjBoFk


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