Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Is it time to end the use of isolation rooms?

Quiet rooms. Safe spaces. Sensory rooms. Calming rooms. Rainbow rooms. For campaigning parent Beth Morrison this is the kind of language deployed to misdescribe isolation spaces that are sometimes no more than dirty, windowless cupboards, where children are punitively locked away.

Morrison, who runs charity Positive and Active Behaviour Support Scotland, believes the use of these rooms is common and particularly widespread in the special school sector.

This is despite the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) last year urging governments in the UK to ban the use of seclusion and isolation in schools.

Whitefield school and isolation rooms

Concerns over isolation rooms have been brought into focus following revelations over abuse at Walthamstow special school Whitefield. Staff at the school were caught on camera hitting, kicking and leaving pupils in their own urine in “calming rooms”.

A joint Metropolitan Police and local authority investigation was launched into organised abuse at the school between 2014 and 2017. The evidence only emerged when new leadership at the school found memory sticks with CCTV footage of the calming rooms.

Concerns about the footage surfaced again last month when it emerged that, although the school has proved abuse on the balance of probabilities, some of the staff are still there and have not been barred from working with children.

Parents have argued they have never been allowed to see the footage and were misled over the use of the isolation rooms.

Restraint and isolation rooms go hand in hand

Morrison’s 25-year-old son Calum, who has autism, a learning disability, cerebral palsy and epilepsy, suffered injuries after being restrained face down at school in 2010. She believes the events at Whitefield, though shocking, are far from isolated.

The campaigner, from Angus, in Scotland, believes there is a deeply rooted problem in special schools of punitively forcing children into isolation rooms to manage distressed behaviours.

Morrison said, “What you have got to ask yourself is how are the staff getting the children into those rooms?”

She believes any schools that use these rooms to seclude are almost certainly also relying on restraint because it is extremely unlikely that distressed children would go willingly into them. Morrison said schools can suggest they are putting pupils in “time out”, but while to a parent this might mean spending a period on a naughty step the picture is very different in a school.

“In a school, time out is generally (when) you’re dragged by your limbs down the corridor and shoved in the cupboard. Honestly, that is the reality,” added Morrison.

Often reasons used to justify seclusion or restraint are “unlawful”

Support group Shame UK, which includes 500 families in England and Wales, polled its members on seclusion and restraint between March 13 and 19 of 2023. Over 400 families responded with 62% saying their child had been both restrained and secluded in school.

The research also shows it is small children who are most likely to be subjected to seclusion and restraint, with 93% of those affected aged 11 and under.

Up to 73% said their child had been seen by a doctor and were left frightened of school after suffering scratches and bruises or being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.  And 12% said their child had become suicidal because of their experience.

Four children developed a new seizure type linked to their anxiety, one suffered a broken bone and two others began soiling themselves out of anxiety, according to Shame UK. In 59% of cases the families reported concerns to the police, local authority, Ofsted, or their MP.

Shame UK says in 72% of cases the reasons used to justify the seclusion or restraint were “unlawful”. These include non-compliance, poor choices, non-specified behaviour and being a distraction to others.

Almost all the families involved were parents of disabled children. The range of conditions included autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy, visual and hearing impairments, language disorders and sensory processing impairments.

Mum Elaine Nutley, from Leatherhead, in Surrey, says son Luke spent two years from the age of eight in isolation at a mainstream primary school. She said the experience left Luke, now 11, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Nutley said the windowless room, which was an old boys’ changing room, contained a sofa and a fish tank and was described as a “snug” by school staff.

Elaine and Luke Nutley

She acknowledged Luke, who has autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and a severe language disorder but had no diagnoses at the time, was disruptive in class by throwing papers and pens and making animal noises. But she believes the school was entirely focused on punishing Luke, rather than investigating the underlying causes for his behaviour.

She said, “He hadn’t had his language disorder diagnosed at that point, so they could have clocked onto that at the very least. Why didn’t he go to a speech and language therapist, who had worked it out two years previously he just didn’t understand what was being asked of him?”

Though Luke still has psychotherapy sessions to help him deal with the time he spent in isolation, his mother says he is now doing well at a special school.

Department of Education says it has strengthened guidance

In a statement, a Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson described the incidents at Whitefield as “abhorrent and disturbing”.

The DfE said they have also been meeting regularly with the school to ensure lessons are learned and young people there can “access a safe and nurturing environment to learn in”.

“We have also strengthened our guidance to give greater clarity on the appropriate use of seclusion rooms, distinguishing between removal from classrooms for disciplinary reasons and separation spaces accessed by pupils to support their wellbeing,” added the spokesperson.

The DfE say their Behaviour in Schools guidance outlines clear procedures that should be followed when a pupil is removed from the classroom for disciplinary purposes.

The guidance states that a space provided outside of the classroom should be used for a limited time and the pupil must never be isolated or locked in. This setting should be supervised by a trained member of staff and parents and carers must be informed on the same day if their child has been removed from the classroom.

 

Picture: Elaine Nutley with son Luke, who spent two years in an isolation room from the age of eight.

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