#questionthebooths

As is so often the case, Twitter is excellent at making clear the extreme polarised views on an issue when, in reality, there is no black and white ’answer’ that will satisfy the argument.  The reality is that different approaches work in different schools… and each school should work in the way that works for their students, families and community.  The reality is, different schools use recognised words and phrases to mean slightly, even significantly, different things – booths in one school might be an entirely different provision to booths in another school, in the same way that ‘no excuses’, ‘silent corridors’, ‘warm strict’, and  whole load more controversial concepts actually mean different things in different schools.  None of these things can be wholeheartedly accepted or rejected because there is no unanimity.  The important thing is that we don’t simply accept the booths.  With whatever influence you have, in whatever setting you’re in, the important thing is that we question the booths; why are we doing this?  How are we doing it?  Who is affected?  What do we want to achieve?  If anything good comes of these little Twitter storms, it’s that it makes people think about things anew.

Without getting too specific, (shaming any individual or establishment is not my aim here), I have seen booths used in a way that I cannot get on board with, even with every intention of respecting and accepting a school’s autonomy to work in the way that works for them.  The internal isolation room was set up in the ‘panopticon’ style, with a semi-circle of outward facing booths, each with three high sides, with a desk for staff placed so that they could easily see every student’s back.  I don’t think it was intentionally dark but, with the position and height of the booths, it was eerily so.  Everyone’s back was to the door.  Students placed in the room started an hour before school and finished an hour after, a book was allowed but no work provided, and the limited number of toilet trips were timed with an egg timer.  Talk, misbehave, or fall asleep, and the whole thing had to be repeated the next day.  This, inevitably, resulted in some students doing long stretches.  The room was closed down on the spot – all students sent back to their lessons – by Ofsted, in on a monitoring visit, on a dreary, grey day when that was not the lowest of the low points.  If this was what was unanimously meant when schools declared themselves to be using booths, #banthebooths would be the very least of appropriate responses.  What was the aim of these booths?  What was the intended outcome?  To punish, test, torture and break the students?  To teach them a lesson by making them suffer?  To keep them out of circulation, out of the way, for as long as possible?  I feel that there might be some horror and outrage at what people have just read; trust me, we don’t need to worry about the school in question any more.  I hope it was an isolated example.

To me, the ‘booths or no booths’ argument is too vague and somewhat redundant but, within that, the conversation about that tier in an escalating system of sanctions, probably (to generalise) somewhere between a detention and a fixed term exclusion, is very much valid and worth having.  Personally, I do think something needs to bridge that gap. There has to be recognition that some behaviour incidents are more serious than everyday behaviour issues but external exclusions must be kept as extreme responses to extreme circumstances.  It would be great if we could universally achieve that edutopia of structures so strong and lessons so engaging that behavior systems are barely used.  But, alas, teachers remain mere humans and our students remain mere humans too, but juvenile ones, and part of our role as educators is to educate them socially, behaviourally, morally and personally.  This necessitates a fair, consistent, flexible and well thought out behaviour policy, and I think some kind of internal exclusion is a valid part of that.  The important thing is that we don’t just accept but question and carefully consider how it’s done.

So, what is it that we are trying to achieve with this provision, whether its booths, an internal exclusion room, or something else?  Here are some suggestions, though I’m happy to take ideas and additions!

  • It’s a sanction for poor behaviour. This could mean anything from straightforward punishment i.e. designed to be boring / not enjoyable, to an opportunity to reflect on an incident.
  • To bring a student ‘out of circulation’. This could be part of a punishment i.e. time away from friends / isolation, or a practical measure i.e. time to get to the bottom of a situation, for dust to settle or for emotions to run back low.
  • To minimise impact on access to learning. To be a short term intervention that increases the chance of future success, whether that be by avoiding external types of exclusion or reducing risk of recidivism.
  • To (and perhaps this is actually a combination of all of the above) provide a personal learning experience for the student that will help them avoid similar situations in the future.

To me, if you’re provision is designed to meet key, child centred and well intentioned objectives, and is monitored and analysed to ensure those objectives are being met (i.e. minimal recidivism, low (or no) impact on academic outcomes, and even improved behaviour and academic outcomes afterwards), then it’s probably okay.  And it probably isn’t going to look the same from school to school.

It seems unreasonable to write this post without including a little bit about my own setting, so here it is; my school has no booths and no internal exclusion or isolation room of any type.  We do, as I think all schools probably need to do, internally exclude sometimes.  Sometimes a student’s behaviour may necessitate a response that represents an escalation from the standard behaviour sanctions.  They may, for a variety of reasons, need to be ‘out of circulation’ for a day or two.  But, crucially, the message we want them to receive from that response is not that they are being segregated and rejected from our community but that they are an important part of our community and we want to help them choose to behave in a way that is fair to themselves and to others.  When students are internally excluded at my school they are placed in a staff office – admin or academic – and spend the day, yes, away from peers and out of lessons, but also in conversation with staff who they may or may not already have a relationship with, seeing an aspect of school life that they may or may not previously been aware of, seeing people working hard but also being supported to work themselves as well as reflect on the reason they are there.  Where they are placed can be tailored to the individual and the situation… some offices are more conducive to independent study / revision and some more suited to interaction with office staff… and, most crucially, what happens in the internal exclusion can be tailored to the individual and situation.  It’s a sanction – they’re away from their friends and it has, inevitably, a huge propensity to be boring – but, in reality, it is not so unpleasant as the room or the booths approach, it’s individualised and restorative and it is not based on a premise of near total segregation.

So, we don’t have booths but that doesn’t mean that I’m siding with any #banthebooths movement or, indeed, the counter movement.  We need to stop trying to make black and white a matter (and this is far from the only example) that is actually quite complex.  What works in one school might be absolutely right for them but no good in many other settings.  What one schools means when they say they use booths might be very different to what the school next door means when they say the very same thing.  Schools need to be able to operate in the way that works for their students (within reason, of course; don’t set up a weird little torture prison in your school) and, actually, it’s difference between schools that creates diversity in the system and takes us a step closer to giving parents genuine choice and meeting the needs of a greater number of young people.

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