The Paradox of Punishment

I was stimulated to write post this after reading Fergus McNeill’s article with the same title in the latest issue of Society Now, the regular magazine from the Economic and Social Research Council.

Fergus is Professor of Criminology at the University of Glasgow, and prior to that he worked in drug rehabilitation and social work. He argues that “all over the western world, criminal justice systems sweep up mainly socially marginalised people. The sanctions that are then applied often add to their social disintegration, for example by locking them away or confining and controlling them in their homes”. We are at a time when our penal population is at historically high levels, (over 90,000 people are in prison), but dealing with this, he argues, requires a more radical shift in approach.

But what has this to do with teaching? Well I argue that what we are seeing nationally with increasing incarceration as a way of seeking retribution, we are also seeing in schools. I have recently been involved in a number of Twitter discussions over punishment and in particular the use by schools of “silent corridors“, and “isolation booths” for pupils who have committed some act, and in some cases a relatively minor act, of deviance. What is most notable about these discussions is how quickly they become quite polarised as various contributors take up one of two entrenched positions: supportive or antagonistic to the use of isolation as punishment. I am firmly in the latter camp.

However, there appears to be a significant strand of contemporary practice around “zero tolerance“, “silent corridors“, “strong discipline“, exclusions, as if somehow we are all involved in a war rather than a process of learning, growth and caring. Take this excerpt from Great Yarmouth Charter Academy’s school rules for example:

“Everyone will sit up extra straight, eyes front, looking at the teacher. You will follow their instructions first time, every time.”

We will all have our own reaction to that, which admittedly is taken out of context as I know nothing of the school. I am merely responding to the text. My own reaction is one of horror, and it took me back to my PGCE days in 1975. In those days, training to be a teacher involved some understanding of the sociology of education, and of the broader and underlying issues behind schooling. Sadly, successive UK Conservative Governments (and to be fair New Labour in 1997-2010) have overseen a stripping out of any social critique in teacher education, as an unacceptable “leftist” or “Marxist” influence, and shifted more into behaviouristic procedures dominated by direct instruction, knowledge and intensive assessment.

As part of my PGCE course, I read “Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates” by the Canadian social psychologist Irving Goffman. In this collection of essays, Goffman develops the idea of the “total institution“. Such institutions (e.g. prisons, hospitals, boarding schools, the armed forces, etc) are organisations where groups of people come together for some purpose, where there is a system of authority, and a lack of inmate independence. A total institution is an organisation where a number of similarly situated people, are cut off from the wider community for a considerable time, and together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.

But what isn’t a total institution, and how are these different forms of social organisation? Consider going to the theatre or music performance and watching a football match. These are entered in freely, by volition. There are rules which participants learn to follow (don’t eat crisps in the theatre). You choose where you sit, you choose what you wear, you can leave at half time, you don’t have to stand when the manager or director appears, you can give a standing ovation if you wish, you can wear your team’s colours or band’s T shirt, but no one looks down on you if you don’t. It is just a way of strengthening the community. I could go on.

Schools however, fit the total institution model rather than the community model, as can be seen from the following description of control mechanisms in total institutions:

Control may be kept by means of a system or rewards and punishments, petty by outside standards, but assuming Pavlovian dimensions in a situation of deprivation. Rules may not be made fully explicit. The inmate cannot appeal to them for protection, and may break them unwittingly, and be punished for it. Like Kafka’s K., he exists in a half-world of guilt and apprehension. He has no privacy, no rights, and no dignity. How does the inmate survive these attacks on his personality? Goffman suggests four types of ‘secondary adjustment’ (ibid.: 61–64):

1. The inmate may withdraw, cutting himself off from contact.
2. He may become intransigent, and fight the system.
3. He may, in a vivid phrase, become ‘colonised’, paying lip-service to the system like the inhabitant of some African or Asian country awaiting the day of independence.
4. He may become converted, genuinely accepting the institution’s view of himself, and what is acceptable behaviour.

The last of these is not really survival, but a kind of personal extinction.

Kathleen Jones and A Fowles, 2008, p. 106

Who can’t place school pupils in one of these categories? But the significance of Goffman, is that he allows us to see schools in a different light. Schools have a very long history of institutional development – David Hamilton (1989, 1990) maps this out through some 700 years. They have become what they now are, not by design, but by encroachment into society. Consequently we all play our part as participants, and as actors, rather than as Director or Producer of a performance. Goffman examines the sense of betrayal and loss of new inmates (pupils), the underlife by which inmates retain some self-respect, and the role of staff in presenting their view of the institution as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. From this perspective, pupil behaviour might take on a different significance.

Back to Fergus McNeil, who presents us with two very different approaches to “wrongdoing” – though the very use of that word has already made a stratement about culpability:

“Broadly speaking, there are two main kinds of responses to wrongdoing. We can take a ‘retribution-based’ approach, denouncing the wrong by punishing it and, at the same time, trying to deter people from committing similar acts in the future. Alternatively, we can take a ‘reparation-based’ approach, where we take the wrong seriously but first seek ways to repair the harm, for example by inviting the wrong-doer to make amends to the person and/or the community. Our system defaults to the former approach; I argue that this is the wrong place to start.”

Fergus McNeil, 2019, p. 17.

I take the position that schools should not be total institutions, but community resources, embedded in, drawing from and contributing to the local community from which they derive. As such, a retribution-based approach to relationships is quite inappropriate. I believe this because I see children as vulnerable, emotionally, developmentally and physically. I also do not see schools as a battlefield, but as our social context. My first post as a new teacher in 1975, was in Dagenham in the East End of London, in a school that served the Beacontree Estate. The kids had tough lives, and their frustrations, disappointments and anger spilled over into the classroom. Now, 45 years later, many of the staff of that time remain close friends. I write that to suggest I am not someone who just does not understand the realities of the classroom but am someone who passionately believes we are there for the kids, not the other way round.

How to deal with “behaviour” then? By this I mean what is labelled as: misbehaviour, wrong-doing, insolence, rudeness, talking in the corridor, wearing the wrong colour socks, having the wrong hair style, not having a pen…. My starting point is not retributive punishment, but reparative social rehabilitation. This means understanding the individuals involved, their families, and their social conditions, and as Fergus McNeil argues: “It is about their connections and resources, their social capital; the help they require along the path from other citizens.” We need to treat children’s behaviour not as pathological, but as social; it is all our responsibility. We are all “just another brick in the wall“.

Criminal justice has focussed myopically on personal rehabilitation which aims to develop motivation for change. Clearly this is often an important part of rehabilitation but, on its own, it can’t resolve problems of disintegration that are social rather than individual.

Fergus McNeil, 2019, p. 17.

In other words, a misdemeanor or an “offence” in criminal justice terms, interferes with personal relationships, but also “tears at the social fabric” as Fergus McNeill describes it, “but the fabric is torn because it is weak and worn thin by other wrongs. Like the tear, the repair must be relational between the people involved. It makes no sense working on only ‘one side of the tear‘”.

Let us remember that children who are “looked after“, are 13 times more likely to end up in prison (McNeill, 2019, p. 17) – a shocking statistic. Yet one that reminds me that children are the creation of our communities, whether they are looked after by the state, or the family.

A really interesting piece of research is by Carl Parsons written up in: “Schooling the Estate Kids“. Carl had been Professor of Education at Canterbury Christ Church with 35 years of experience in research until he took retirement, partly in order to write this book. I find it quite a stunning piece of work. In it, Carl looks at one school in one of the most deprived estates in the country, in Thanet, Kent. He identifies key elements for successful schools in such circumstances. Of course this includes good teaching, but also requires strong relationships with the community and positive relationships between staff and students. (Parsons, 2012, p. 136)

“They were not difficult kids, but kids who were made to be difficult”

Carl Parsons, 2012, p. 46.

A longitudinal study in 2017 by Haroon Chowdry and Tom McBride, of the Early Intervention Foundation, “Disadvantage, Behaviour and Cognitive Outcomes“, concluded thus:

Our analysis shows that there is a higher prevalence of behavioural and emotional problems among disadvantaged children. We also find that this discrepancy can be fully accounted for by differences in maternal psychological wellbeing and parental education. This does not mean that economic disadvantage does not matter. However, it does suggest that it is factors associated with disadvantage, rather than economic disadvantage itself, that lead to the social gradient in child behavioural and emotional problems. Poor maternal psychological wellbeing explains around half of the socioeconomic disparity in behavioural and emotional problems. However, its association with these problems is only present in low‐ and medium‐income families, and the effect is strongest for children in poverty.

Haroon Chowdry and Tom McBride, 2017, p. 7

The children we encounter with behaviour “problems”, or merely those children who struggle accepting the mindset of the school (as total institution) now and then, are creations of our society, and any conflict is a problem for us all.

I can’t recall who first said this now, but there is some truth in the joke: “If you want to get on, change your parents“, as illustrated again by Haroon Chowdry and Tom McBride:

This suggests that higher family income (or factors associated with it) may act as a protective factor against the risks from poor maternal psychological wellbeing, or that factors associated with poverty may amplify those risks.
There is a lower incidence of behavioural and emotional problems in children with highly educated parents. It is likely that parental education is capturing a range of influences, such as the quality of parenting, of the home learning environment and of parent–child interactions. All of these factors may contribute to children’s socioemotional development and behaviour throughout childhood.

Haroon Chowdry and Tom McBride, 2017, p. 7

This stance is further illuminated over and over again in Ian Gilbert’s wonderful 2018 edited collection, The Working Class.

We also need to support families and parents rather than hassle and punish them. There are too many stories of consistency in school systems leading to family misery and anxiety. For example what support can you give the mother who is on her own with four children? She has to get them up, and get them dressed and fed on her own every morning. The oldest girl helps her mum as well as getting herself ready for school. She has to drop them off at two different schools and the school bus has recently been cancelled. When the oldest child arrives at school she is one minute late. She has broken the school attendance policy and receives an automatric fifteen-minute detention. There is no flexibility in this rule: consistency is king.

Dave Whittaker, 2018, p. 369-370

This is not just an isolated – yet true – story. I recall when teaching a Masters module on practitioner research in a local school some years back. A maths teacher had a problem pupil who never did his homework, was often late, and was regularly getting detentions, so I suggested this as the topic of his inquiry and he might make a home visit to gather data. Some weeks later, he presented his findings. The boy’s dad, whom he was very close to, left the family home as a result of relationship breakdown. His mum couldn’t afford to stay in the house and had to move to rented accommodation some distance away across the city, and get two jobs leaving at 7 in the morning in order to support the family. The boy had to get his brother up and into school, and then get two busses. Homework and punctuality were, frankly, the least of his problems. The school knew nothing of this. In this situation, who are the miscreants? If “every child matters” and “we strive to help all children reach their full potential”, then how come this child didn’t matter as much as others? What is so wrong here is an institutional culture that works to a model of an ideal inmate. The practitioner inquiry resulted in changes to school procedures.

So what might do about this? I will end with six strategies that go some way to alleviating the systematic and structural failure of pupils in poverty which lead to “behavioural” issues:

  1. Engender positive, respectful social and pedagogic relationships with all pupils, to explicitly foster self-esteem and resilience.
  2. Treat all students to the same high expectations, with a demanding and rigorous curriculum that expects all pupils to succeed and understand.
  3. Recognize and embrace the diversity in the student body, valuing the talents and abilities of all learners, encompassing a respect for different life worlds and their contributions to society.
  4. Get to know the families, and provide differentiated support. Involve families and the local community in decisions affecting their children, opening up the school and its procedures to democratic control and local accountability.
  5. Involve pupils in developing and operating reparative strategies.
  6. Create and use meaningful tasks involving inquiry and cooperative learning, where all learners have some control and responsibility.

If we want to really fundamentally work on relational behaviour we must do much more than enact retribution; we must even move beyond identifying candidates for rehabilitation. We have to strengthen relationships as part of the deep structure of our schools.

I remember some years ago making a visit to Trinity School in Aspley, Nottingham – the school where the musical Kanneh-Mason children attended. I was so impressed by the atmosphere, the respect the children had for the head – Mike MacKeever – but also how, as we walked through the corridors, Mike seemed to know the children’s names and their family circumstances. I asked Mike what his underpinning philosophy of education was. “Love” he replied.

A challenge for all of us is to fight the demons that cause us to expect little from learners from less affluent backgrounds other than poor behaviour and, more specifically, to recognize the influence that poverty has on all aspects of teaching and learning. Engaging explicitly with class and social differences in learning has been shown to have the potential to open up greater opportunities for higher order thinking, and for raising the intellectual quality of pupil cognition. Class, in some guise or another, is always a latent variable whose invisibility obscures possibilities for action. However this remains not merely an epistemic or empirical question, but a political and an ideological one and your response to this post, will be similarly political.

We don’t need no education
We don’t need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey, teachers, leave them kids alone
All in all it’s just another brick in the wall
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall

Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall

-Chowdry, H. & Mcbride, T. (2017) Disadvantage, Behaviour and Cognitive Outcomes. Longitudinal Analysis From Age 5 to 16, London Early Intervention Foundation.
-Goffman, E. (1961) Asylums. Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates, London: Penguin Books.
-Hamilton, D. (1989) Towards a Theory of Schooling, Lewes: Falmer Press.
-Hamilton, D. (1990) Learning About Education. An Unfinished Curriculum, Buckingham: Open University Press.
-Hargreaves, D., Hestor, S. & Mellor, F. (1975) Deviance in Classroom, London: RKP
-Jones, K. & Fowles, A. (2008) “Total Institutions“, in J. Johnson & C. DeSouza, Understanding Health and Social Care, London: Sage, pps. 103-106.
-McNeil, F. (2019) “The Paradox of Punishment”, in Society Now, 34, Spring 2019, p. 17.
-Parsons, C. (2012) Schooling the Estate Kids, Rotterdam: Sense.
-Whittaker, D. (2018) “Pencilgate”, in I. Gilbert (Ed) The Working Class, Carmarthen: Crown House Press, pps 367-370.

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