A British school engaged in battle of wills with a parent has inadvertently turned a spotlight on the issue of student discipline. The school in Doncaster, England, won’t let an 11-year old return to class until he spends a day in the school’s “isolation room” for letting the air out of a classmate’s bicycle tires. But the boy’s father describes the room as a dungeon and compares it to a cell in Guantanamo Bay. He has threatened to remove his son from the school in protest.
The room is painted totally black. The walls, the partitions, the window blinds – everything was black,” said Andrew Widdowson. “The partitions down one side created four cells where school kids are expected to sit at a desk all day. My son has never been in trouble. The first time he’s done something and he gets told to go into isolation. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. I was shocked they were putting children into that room. It’s more like a prison.
“In my days as a young teacher, in the early 1990s, I was very trigger happy about sending irritating kids to such places,” former British teacher Francis Gilbert, writes in the Guardian. ”It gave me a huge feeling of power. However, I began to notice that it was always the same pupils going there. Increasingly, they became rather too happy to leave my lessons. Indeed, spending time in the ‘cooler’ – as one of my schools nicknamed it – was seen as cool.”
Gilbert’s observation is familiar to anyone who has ever taught in a school plagued by chronic disruption. There’s a familiar cast of characters in most schools that use “in-house suspensions” – typically off-the-books punishments not officially reported to districts. Nothing is expected of such kids, who are merely being warehoused on-site.
As the Children’s Rights Alliance for England has pointed out, by not expecting anything of them, the school is depriving them of the right to an education and contravening the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Moreover, these internal exclusions seem to disproportionately affect our most vulnerable children: looked-after children, pupils with special educational needs, children from poor and ethnic backgrounds. Experience suggests that internal exclusions have played a role in contributing to the rock bottom levels of achievement of our most deprived children.
As always, there’s another side to this coin. Profoundly disruptive children represent an enormous drain on educational resources in struggling schools, not the least of which is teacher and student time on-task. Certainly, letting the air out of another kid’s tires doesn’t seem to meet the definition of profoundly disruptive. But finding an effective way to safeguard the education of the many ready and able learners in even the most chaotic schools, while not giving up on the few disaffected and disruptive is a balancing act that very few if any struggling schools seem to get right. The problem is typically compounded by a knee-jerk “blame the teacher” response for failing to control his or her class. In this way, inexperienced teachers learn to place a premium on classroom management, and not much else. The net result is…pretty much what we have.