Chats in the Naughty Corner: witnessing punishment

I get told off every day. When someone hits me, I get told off.”

That’s hard. But just because someone else was involved as well doesn’t mean that you can’t choose to do the right thing.”

[….] “One time Dan was climbing on the railings in the playground, and I asked him whether we were allowed and he said yes. So I started climbing. Then Mrs T came over and told me off, because Dan got down before she got there. I was only four.”

This is a six yr old speaking. He’s bright, lively, friendly, eager to please. And he has a shortish attention span, he finds it hard to sit still, and he gets impatient with his friends when they are sharing. I saw him fuming, arms crossed, eyes glaring, on the ‘naughty chairs’ outside the head’s office, and I paused to say hello, and asked him how his day was going. I wanted to give him a chance to express some of his emotion before he got onto talking to the head, who is of the ‘Don’t you have that attitude when you come to talk to me’ school of thought. From a previous experience of being told off for talking to a child stood against the wall I was wary of being too supportive – as I’d said ‘do the right thing’ I was flinching inside at my use of the classic phrase.

I hadn’t expected to get such a clear story of the original injustice which serves as a memory to justify resentment of being punished unfairly without a chance for appeal. The story stayed with me. Because of the incident itself, but particularly because the lesson he has learned – that sometimes he will be blamed and punished when he is innocent, and to attempt to defend himself will make it worse. He is learning that there isn’t a strong link between his actions and when he is punished – pretty demotivating for trying to improve his behaviour. It doesn’t seem a coincidence that this boy is black, and it is unlikely that he will unlearn this lesson as he becomes a disproportionate victim of police harassment as a young man.

One might think everyone could agree that arbitrary punishment is always wrong and damaging, and would recognise that arbitrariness is perceived subjectively. However, in this school, although all would agree that punishment should be just, some then argue that children should respect adults’ decisions without question, trusting the adult to have understood the situation, even if the child disagrees. The child must learn to respect and obey authority, including recognising that it will not always seem fair to them. This is something I find intuitively problematic. There are many attempts to make punishment systems more fair, and to focus on the future impact of the response rather than punitive responses of retributive justice. There is also a strong case against any punishment.

David Wills entirely rejected the use of punishment in The Barns Hostel, a hostel for evacuees who were deemed too challenging to be housed with families during WW2. He argued that punishment undermined the possibility of children developing their own moral judgement and prevents the establishment of a relation in which the child feels themselves to be loved. He encountered the logic that if there was to be no punishment, an action could not be wrong – something children at the Barns Hostel gradually unlearnt. (David Gribble, Lifelines LibEd 2004). If children are living within the logic of bad actions being punished, then it is harder for them to develop self control in non-punitive situations. This clearly makes a difficult situation for non-authoritarian figures within schools, as the effectiveness of their methods is reduced by authoritarian actions elsewhere. This mutually un-beneficial relationship goes both ways, with children who are accustomed to being treated with understanding and given only flexible, negotiated rules being less willing to submit to authoritarian discipline. Schools are unnatural environments where discipline is necessary, and consistency is highly desirable for everyone and so a balance must be reached and agreed.

Squeezed Schools

feeling funding pressures as a teaching assistant in schools

The vast majority of children spend every other day, from 5 til 16, in the care of schools, 93% of them in the state education system. The part schools play in shaping our society, therefore, is indisputable. Resources – the time and interest of teaching staff, materials, support for additional needs such as speech therapy and specialised equipment – are allocated within classrooms according to on-the-spot best judgement, school policy and, for external resources, as the system allows. Some children are served better than others. The gap between the higher and lower ‘achieving’ children tends to widen through primary school. When money is squeezed out of the budget, the same children who are already failed, are failed worse.

Despite the dedication of teachers and other school staff, there are things which go wrong in classrooms continuously. Filing into assembley, a generally ‘good’ 5yrold girl asks ‘Why do we have to sit so much? I hate sitting.‘ ‘Capitalism, innit,’ I think, and reply ‘What do you think would happen if you never sat? Let’s talk about it at playtime, assembly’s not talking time.’ Classes of 30 children mean a lot of whole class discipline, making a talent at sitting still cross-legged the greatest virtue a 5yrold can have. Boys tend to have higher muscle tone, some children get bored quicker – particularly if whole class tasks are either too easy or too hard for them. Quickly some children start to have days filled with confrontation … and for some reason, they then direct less energy to directed tasks. In the staffroom of a special needs secondary, the topic of discipline in mainstream comes up. Everyone agrees school should be about learning. ‘But you’ve got to have discipline for a learning environment. And if they [mainstream kids] were never bored in school, they wouldn’t know what had hit them when they had to go to work.’

I came into schools fresh (ish – there were 5 months’ unemployment) from a degree in social sciences. Schools as the institutions which churn out good workers was a concept I’d learnt academically, having grown up with middle-class expectations of gaining an ‘education’ to prepare me for life. Working in schools as an adult, it is impossible to miss the division and rule of children, shaping them to expect to operate at the bottom of a hierarchy. The new wave of Gove’s academies fetishise this discipline as the cornerstone of a ‘good’ school environment.

Many children do achieve under rigid discipline regimes. But many do not, and many are excluded – whether formally expelled or marginalised within the classroom. There is a division between those willing to work despite the oppressive environment, and those who are not. Experience of oppression by authorities affecting one’s family and friends, whether in the form of humiliation at the jobcentre, or random stop and searches by cops, makes children more resentful of this sort of discipline. The choice to be compliant or rebellious is shaped from early experiences, not only chosen according to an individual’s innate tendencies.

These fundamental problems with schools drive me toward two responses. The first is to declare school to be dead, as Everett Reimer did with great optimistic enthusiasm in his 1971 book. This would lead me to practice education in all forms outside the formal, restrictive setting of schools, and to promote these alternatives using all means available. The second is to note that schools are massively problematic, and to work within them alongside all those others who see the problems, and to attempt to practice and propagate strategies which go some way to combat these problems. These two options are rarely in direct conflict with each other, and I hope to balance the two in my own practice, and support the practice of both in whichever ways possible. Writing here is one way to motivate me to condense my reflection on my own practice, and also share it with others. The Radical Education Forum is another. Well, let’s see how all this goes.