Schools and Human Rights

Do Isolation Rooms in Schools Breach Young People’s Human Rights?

By thesarahmccalden

I wonder, if your child is in a secondary school in the UK or elsewhere, (or has been in a secondary school previously) if there is an isolation room used for punishment. Maybe the school might call it by another name, like "supervision", "inclusion unit", "time-out space", or even "calm room", but essentially, it is a room which children are sent to, as some form of punishment for some form of unwanted behaviour. They are not allowed to speak to anyone. They aren't allowed any exercise. There is no classroom instruction. There is nothing of benefit to the child. Maybe you agree with this punitive method of punishment. Maybe you do not. I for one, am strongly opposed to it.

Here is a BBC article with a video explaining what isolation was like from the perspective of a student. It was published over 3 years ago, at the beginning of 2020. I feel like the experiences of the students I have met are similar.

The Human Rights Act 1998 sets out the fundamental rights and freedoms that everyone in the UK is entitled to. It came into force in the UK in October 2000. It requires public bodies, such as publicly funded schools to respect and protect your human rights. All people, as soon as they are born are protected. If your human rights are breached, you can take your case to a British court or even the European Court of Human Rights.

I want to suggest that perhaps isolation rooms in schools are in breach of human rights. Particularly with regard to:

Article 3: Freedom from torture and inhuman or degrading treatment, 

Article 5: Right to liberty and security

Article 10: Protection from discrimination in respect of these rights and freedoms

and Protocol 1, Article 2: Right to Education

I have developed my own thoughts on the use of isolation rooms as a result of my experience in a school in England this past academic year. In this school there was more than one isolation room because often there were too many students to hold in one room. It is not used as a last resort. Far from it. You could sit in isolation for things like not having "the right" shoes, not having "the right" school uniform, for wearing jewellery, taking it off and then not handing it over to a member of staff, because a staff member sees your mobile phone, because you are wearing a smart watch, for not complying with what a teacher is asking you to do, for "talking back" to a teacher, for being sent out of 2 classes for "bad" behaviour in a day, and for anything else that a member of staff sees fit to put you in there for. You could also sit in there day after day, for "failing". Failing might mean talking, leaning back on your chair, fidgeting, asking a question, making eye contact with another student, using your phone, etc etc etc. Once a student failed, they would be sent to sit with a teacher or to sit in the library or main office for the rest of the day. They would then be required to sit in the isolation room all day the following day and for as many more days that it took them to "pass".  

Are you feeling upset or angry yet? I have felt all kinds of emotions watching the same young people sitting in those rooms day after day, week after week. I have cried for them. There are no staff members fighting for those students, I think partly because the staff that do care, feel powerless to make any change. I did my best for them by aiming to keep those who I knew, out of isolation, but I was mostly unsuccessful. The fact is that the majority of students who sat in isolation often had some form of Special Educational Need (the question I want to ask is, is this some form of disabilty discrimination?) or were anxious or had faced some other sort of trauma previously. Added to this, many times they were required to sit in that room for really unjust reasons, for example, they might have been accused of doing something that they actually didn't do, and they weren't believed by a staff member. They were also not allowed to talk to express that they didn't do it - that often times ended in further escalation of the situation. 

If you are repeatedly putting the same students into isolation day after day, week after week, clearly something isn't working and some other form of intervention is needed. This is the school's lazy intervention. The one that is a big middle finger to the young people in their care. The young people I spoke to about their lived experience of isolation, told me that it was a really negative experience, they felt like the teachers hated them, they felt unworthy, and they were full of shame, on the inside. People who experience shame and unworthiness come to view themselves as worthless and unlovable - the very opposite of self esteem. One person who was in the isolation room often, said to me, 

"Supervision is pointless! No one who gets put in supervision learns anything from it. It isn't a punishment that helps you change your behaviour or realise why what you have done is wrong. I sometimes spend 3 full days a week in supervision with no work and no teacher and now I am failing all my lessons. We get told to wear a uniform to represent the school but then get made to sit in a box for 6 hours a day. I have ADHD so sitting still and in silence is like torture! It's not fair. Being in supervision so much has made me hate school and has made my mental health worse. It needs to change."

Another student said to me,

"When I was in supervision it made me feel more down in myself, and more ashamed of myself and made me think I could never be good enough."

In my previous blog, I spoke about self esteem and that the fundamental reason I wanted to be in schools was to help young people to increase their's. These students need nurturing and they need to build their self-esteem, not have it torn to shreds in a place that is supposed to be a positive environment for children, looking out for their best interests. They need to feel worthy of all the good and the great that they can acheive in their lives - because they can achieve anything they set their minds to - they need to know that they ABSOLUTELY CAN realise their full potential!

Think about the impact of perpetuating a system of social isolation that is unjust. It impacts extremely negatively on students' physical and mental health. How would you feel, if you were accused of a certain behaviour or people had reached conclusions about you that weren't true, and as a result you were isolated, not allowed to move your body or turn your head, make eye contact with anyone or go to the toilet when you need to go, for 6 hours at a time? I would feel outraged, and if there was nothing I could do about it, I would feel powerless, despondant, depressed, alone, anxious, worthless, angry, and full of shame. I would feel like things were being done to me, rather than feeling in control of my life. I would be wondering what the point is. Keeping children in isolation impacts their sense of identity, hope and capacity to relate to others. A culture of isolation as a behaviour management intervention doesn't sit anywhere near the same realm as a caring, compassionate culture. The results are damaging rather than rehabilitative and furthermore go against the NHS recommendation of at least 60 minutes of physical activity per day, impacting not only physical but mental health as well. Physical exercise promotes good mental health and yet this isolation policy flies in the face of the evidence. How about schools adopt a policy that takes a holistic approach and promotes health and wellness, (which will contribute to the all-important GCSE grades - and rates of attendance), rather than ruining the life chances of these children?

It is true that teachers are under enormous pressures and they face complex challenges, but throwing students into isolation and depriving them of their fundamental human rights is unacceptable. Let's think about a different way to DO education.  Teachers usually get into teaching with the intention to help young people, but in reality, they are maintaining a system that enforces punishment, leading to the mental and emotional breakdown of the children under their care. It must be a guarantee that every child who attends mainstream school, regardless of their vulnerabilities, can access an education that is entirely inclusive and supportive. One way to promote an inclusive and supportive environment would be to eliminate isolation rooms, offer specialised and individualised assistance, and create enabling environments where children feel valued and their right to a quality education is being met.

Again, as in my previous blog post, what teachers are recognising the absolute wrongs of isolation and are they speaking up? What about parents? Are they being listened to? Are they powerless to affect change? What about the school governors? The senior leadership teams? The executive teams at Academy Trusts? It is important to acknowledge that just because a ruling power ("the school" or "the trust") appears to be "legitimate" in the perspective of those under its authority, it does not mean that it is truly legitimate. In the case of the isolation room, it is necessary to examine the UK's commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the Human Rights Act 1998, and not simply accept the existing status quo as above scrutiny.

If your child's school has an isolation room, even if your child has never stepped foot in one, consider the detrimental effects on the young people who do sit in them hour after hour, day after day, and consider their experience of school, consider what alternatives might look like, and consider any actions you might potentially want to take.

If you are an academic, a parent of a student with SEND or mental health concerns, an expert in the Human Rights Act or the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, if your school uses Non Violent Communication, if you are a former teacher, or a current teacher brave enough to speak out, if you are involved in education other than in schools, or in alternative schools or if you are interested in this subject generally and have something to say, then please reach out, as I am creating a podcast to address this and more, and I'd love you to be a part of it!

You can reach me on

PS - My 14 Day "Change Your Life Challenge" is an intro into the type of work I do with both adults and young people. It comes in email format over 2 weeks and it's free! Click here to find out more and get it sent to your email!

Success message!
Warning message!
Error message!
%d bloggers like this: