Words by Ruby Bishop
Ruby Bishop is studying for her GCSEs at Faversham's Abbey School, which last year surprised pupils and parents by introducing a controversial new rules system.
In her first story as the Faverham Eye's new young reporter, she investigates the impact of the strict new regime, sharing her first-hand experiences and those of other students...
Last September, we arrived back to school after the six week summer holiday. But, instead of going straight to form as usual, we were asked to line up on the school playing field in our form groups for an “inspection”.
We were checked, first by our form tutors then by our heads of year or the deputy head, to make sure we had all the correct uniform and equipment. If something didn’t meet the school's regulations, students were sent to “isolation” where, instead of going to lessons, they would sit in silence in another room.
This has happened every morning, Monday to Friday since September, all through the winter, regardless of the weather.
Countless pupils of all ages and year groups who arrive late for school – often only by a few minutes – or with missing uniform items, will spend their morning in isolation. Some will spend longer or remain after school in detention.
I had been excited to go back to school, for what was to be my final year. But this strict new rules system with harsh punishments for minor offences just felt confusing and demeaning. It included “line up”, uniform and equipment checks, “entry and exit” and a strict code of behaviour in the classroom. Pupils given three warnings or “corrections” were automatically sent to isolation.
“The new rules were a shock to everyone,” said one pupil. “On the first couple of days, something like 50-plus pupils got sent to isolation for various reasons like no pen, wrong uniform or general behaviour.
“I agree with the checks but not with the whole school lining up outside. Especially in winter, when they make you stand outside for up to twenty minutes in freezing temperatures. I believe these checks should be done in your form classrooms.”
From September, my friends and I worried every day about bringing the right equipment and wearing the right uniform. Every day, I see kids getting stressed out and anxious because of a forgotten school book or misplaced pencil case.
None of the Abbey students I've interviewed from different year groups like the outside morning line up. One student described it as “a waste of time”, while another said “I get that checking uniform is important but that's why we have form.”
Abbey School staff and governors decided to “tighten up procedures” last year. “The new rules will “give all teachers the very best opportunity to deliver high standard teaching and learning with basic, but strict and consistent expectations of students,” report the minutes of a meeting in June 2019. They go on to say that Mrs Parsons, head of the school's behaviour system, will “reinforce daily checks for equipment at the start of September 2019” without detailing how checks will be done.
Staff and governors agreed to set up a hardship fund to provide equipment for students, so in cases of “genuine financial hardship, the school will be morally obliged to help”.
In July 2019, parents were sent a survey asking if their children felt happy and safe at school, if they were making good progress and felt looked after. Other questions covered bullying, school management, communication between school and home and how well the school responded to their concerns. The following day the school emailed parents saying: “Students wanted disruptive pupils to be removed from class...Parental feedback mirrors this.”
Before September, we were aware of changes to be made to the Abbey School uniform. Girls, for example, could choose to wear ties with shirts. But no pupils or parents I asked could recall being informed of the morning “line up”.
One student said: “My honest and overall opinion on the rules are that these rules aren't set on the student's health or learning but more for show and how well the school looks”.
“There are now boundaries for both staff and students,” said another. “However I do think that they have taken them too far. Isolation for a missing pen or planner is painful for new students and us year 11s as we have grown up in the school with the old rules and old habits."
“The new regime has improved disobedient student behaviour,” said one girl." But for those who were already behaving well, the rules have cornered them and have made them feel uncomfortable and scared. There is no leniency and students are finding it hard to enjoy school. So it’s not a surprise when some retaliate in the way they do.”
Some pupils reacted angrily to the new rules, protesting at lunchtime on the school field. They ran from one end to the other shouting “No Speller!” (referring to headteacher Dr Speller) and “no more rules!”. One group ran out of the school grounds.
The protests were organized through social media. I managed to chat to a couple of the organisers.
“We ran the protests because of the rules,” said one. “Everyone was under pressure.” He said the Abbey School Instagram meme account they created “went on for about two weeks with 1000-plus followers before it got taken down”.
“A week later I got excluded for about a month,” said the student, who is now at another school.
Another told me he helped organise protests because students were – and still are – “unhappy about the new rules and thought they were unfair”. “Strict rules and conditions might have worked in North Korea but nobody says they’re a good thing!” he said. Although disappointed that the protests didn’t change the rules, he was “happy we had them” and thinks there should be more.
When I spoke to Abbey School governor Rebecca Towler, however, she described the pupils as “troublemakers.” She told me, “Students have the right to speak out and protest if they are not happy, but the protests at the Abbey School were organised by a small minority who saw it as an opportunity to make trouble.”
“Children are treated much better today than they ever were,” she added. “They have much more of a voice now and understand how to make that voice heard.”
Abbey School has its own student council to give pupils a voice. At the last meeting, in November, the new “behaviour system” was discussed. Students agreed progress in lessons was much better and that disruptive behaviour was being addressed. But many were concerned about the lack of consistency in the way the new rules were enforced. Older students said this was their third system in four years and they would like less change.
But one former member questioned whether pupils' voices are taken seriously, saying the school uses the council as “an opportunity to say ‘we think highly of our students’ opinions’ but then not actually giving students a platform to express and share their feelings or opinions, and not acting upon them.
After speaking to pupils from every year, my final thoughts are these: The Abbey School rules are not just patronizing kids with bad or unacceptable behaviour, but it’s also punitive, demeaning and punishing to those who make small and sometimes very normal slips. I don’t believe that the obsessive use of rules is contributing to an overall better learning environment, but rather, making the school experience unpleasant for all.
We hope the school's headteacher will respond to this piece in the next issue of the Faversham Eye.
ISOLATION WHAT IS IT?
Isolation rooms are spaces where pupils sit in silence – sometimes for hours on end – as punishment for breaking school rules. They are increasingly being used in secondary schools across the country as a disciplinary measure. Pupils can be kept in isolation for days or even weeks and there is growing concern from parents and mental health campaigners.
Many schools however argue isolation, or “internal exclusion”, reduces classroom disruption and provides an alternative to pupil exclusions.
At the Abbey, there is an isolation room for all the “badly behaved” students. The isolation room is a normal classroom on the ground floor, with about thirty single desks and chairs set out in rows, that the students are permitted to sit on. At the front of the classroom, the teacher sits at a large desk on a computer, watching over the classroom of supposedly silent students, while putting the reasons for why a student has been sent to isolation onto the school system.
At Abbey School, students are isolated “for serious breaches of The Abbey School Home Partnership agreement,” according to the school’s website. “This may include misconduct, dangerous/reckless behaviour, persistent disobedience, rudeness or inappropriate appearance”.
To request an internal exclusion, assistant headteachers submit a form to the head of school who liaises with the headteacher. The school office completes the formal paperwork and notifies parents.
Government guidance in England says schools are free to decide how long pupils should be kept in isolation but they should be there "no longer than is necessary".
The guidelines also say that in order for isolation to be lawful, it should be "reasonable" in all circumstances. Factors, such as special educational needs, should be taken into account.
Seclusion is defined according to the Department of Education as: “The supervised confinement and isolation of a person, away from other users of services, in an area from which the person is prevented from leaving.”
This definition could be interpreted as contravening Article 5 of the Human Rights Act, the right to liberty and security. The “prevented from leaving” might not mean that the door is locked but could refer to a perceived or real threat.
ISOLATION – A PERSONAL ACCOUNT?
I hadn’t been sent to isolation before. We all knew about it but I didn’t really know what it was or what happened there. So, after several attempts, I managed to get first-hand experience when I was three minutes late after the morning bell.
I was shocked to see how many students were sent there. But to my surprise the isolation class room was actually better than standing out in the cold being inspected and checked!
Other students were there for reasons like forgetting a blazer, leaving shoes at their dad’s house, bringing in the wrong PE kit or not turning up for a detention.
I was sent for thirty five minutes and there were about ten other students in isolation with me. I automatically had to do an after school detention as well, but spent my time there at lunch instead. Throughout lunch, the isolation room was bustling full of students coming in and going out. I only had to be in there for half an hour but during that time about twenty five other students sat in there with me. Whilst I worked from my maths booklet other students were reading, sleeping on their desks, trying to chat with the teacher, or daydreaming out of the window.
Although my experience of isolation was generally positive, not everyone felt the same. One girl told me: “School no longer feels like a place where I can be comfortable with my teachers and my peers. At any moment I could be spending days in isolation for nothing more than forgetting a pen.”
IN THEIR OWN WORDS – WHAT STUDENTS THINK OF THE NEW RULES
Faversham Eye reporter Ruby interviewed Abbey School pupils from different year groups about the new behaviour system. This is what they had to say:
“Some rules make it harder, such as forgetting your planner could end up with you in a day of isolation. How are you meant to learn through that? You might as well stay home!”
“I like how the old way was as I didn’t feel like every teacher was always watching me.”
“I have seen a positive change as disruption is less frequent due to the new warning system. Overall I believe that the school has improved slightly since September but there are still some areas for improvement”.
”The school as a whole has got good behaviour but the teachers are unfair towards students.”
“The school is trying hard to improve it however it just isn’t working...with some teachers favouring specific students.”
“Rules such as the three corrections have definitely made a massive impact on not only my learning but my friends as well. There is less messing around with the “undisciplined” students and a better learning environment.”
“I do not wish to come to my current school as there are too many bullies and the teachers are terrible. They make me feel as though I’m in the wrong.”
“The new rules have made me feel left out and not welcome at the school.”
“The new rules are a bit harsh and too strict on some things but it’s for the benefit of the school and it’s improving behaviour so I agree with them”.