Discipline in schools: from ‘isolation rooms’ to ‘community service’ – what is reasonable

Schools may be feeling rather unsure as to which sanctions might be considered to be ‘reasonable’ in light of the recent news exposé of schools’ use of ‘isolation rooms’ and community service with pupils wearing hi-vis bibs. Indeed, legal proceedings have been lodged against one academy trust for its use of ‘isolation’ or ‘consequence rooms’.

Schools have a legal duty to have a behaviour policy in place to promote good behaviour, self-discipline and respect, prevent bullying, ensure that pupils complete their work and generally regulate their conduct. It must be shared with the pupils and parents, and updated at least annually. It will set out examples of behaviour that the school expects, alongside behaviour that is deemed unacceptable for that school, and the sanction pupils can expect if they misbehave.

Although behaviour policies may provide some clarity in relation to the behaviour expected of pupils, they should never be applied without discretion. And any application of the behaviour policy must not breach other legislation, for example, the Equality Act 2010.

All punishments short of exclusion must be ‘proportionate’ and reasonable in all the circumstances In deciding this, account must be taken of the pupil’s age, any special educational needs or disability they may have, and any religious requirements affecting them. Punishments should be ones which are customary for teachers to employ. ‘The Department, in its ‘Advice for headteachers and school staff’ provides examples of a range of disciplinary measures which might, depending upon the circumstances, be considered reasonable.’ So applying all this to the two punishments in the limelight:

Beatrice took another child’s trainers and the school is aware that she has been ‘borrowing’ a number of other things that belong to other children over the course of the term. She has received verbal warnings but the trainers had been missing for a fortnight when she was spotted wearing them for PE. Beatrice is 14 and has ADHD. It is very unlikely ever to be considered ‘reasonable’ to put Beatrice in any kind of isolation room as punishment for her behaviour, whatever the circumstances of her unacceptable behaviour. Community service of some kind which enables her to move around and get some fresh air might be a good alternative. However, the school is also aware that Beatrice has high levels of anxiety around her weight. It would not be reasonable for the school to force Beatrice to wear a hi-vis jacket because this could exacerbate her anxiety.

And what if she did not have ADHD? In that case both of these things might be held to be reasonable. Much might depend on the extent to which the high-visibility vest exposes the child to humiliation to a disproportionate extent and what ‘isolation’ consists of. If it is to all intents and purposes solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, then clearly it is in danger of being unreasonable. If it means isolating a child from the opportunity to show off by disrupting others and so avoiding excluding him/her, then it is more likely to be seen as reasonable in all the circumstances. We must wait until the case in prospect is decided before we know whether more the courts deem such measures reasonable, particularly when endeavours are being made to turn round schools with difficult histories.

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