Punishment in Schools

We live in a sentimental age. Approaches to dealing with children reflect this.

Indulgent parenting is rife. Parents who can’t say no to their children are bowing to their every demand and permitting routine disobedience and unhealthy and mind-numbing lifestyles. These parents are part of a generation who ‘learned’ that their personal foibles, faults and failings can be attributed to the way their own parents treated them. Terrified of similarly harming their own children, or incurring blame from them, these parents play safe and avoid conflict altogether.

The Naughty Step of countless how-to-parent TV shows, books and magazine articles is regarded as the height of tough discipline, and speaking in anything other than a placid tone is regarded as unloving. Care, not character formation, is at the heart of contemporary parenting. The ideal father is the most typically motherly.

In the classroom, ‘progressive’ and ‘child-centred’ approaches dominate, placing the emphasis firmly on the child’s wishes and preferences. Children are taught about their rights and are informed that the adults around them have responsibilities to look after them, taking into account their views. Instead of learning to respect authority figures, children are taught to question and assess them. The constant welter of enquiry into their views on school life implicitly conveys that school exists to keep them happy.

Alongside this, a huge emphasis on protecting children from adults has led to hypersensitivity towards anything that is intended to be an experience that children do not wish to repeat—such as a punishment.

The fragility and vulnerability of children is emphasised, to the point where it is feared that any and every unpleasant experience will cause long term damage to a child.

Our culture fosters suspicion of institutions and pities the individual. The vulnerable child and the heartless school is an easily-digested scenario. The bullying and destructive child and the firm but fair school is a less palatable prospect to this generation. 

From politics to business management to families, the very concept of authority has fallen into disrepute. Rules are for authoritarians. Guidelines are for nicer people. Authority is to be questioned and held to account. ‘Democracy’, on the other hand, has assumed an almost mystical status as a universal panacea. If only we were all equal and ran things by mutual consent, everything would be alright. Negotiation is good, compulsion is bad. Even in the family home and the classroom.

Parallel to these developments, moral responsibility has been eroded. The idea that some actions are right and some are wrong limps along, staggering under the twin pressures of relativism and non-judgmentalism. Moral agency and personal responsibility are regarded as unenlightened, pre-scientific ideas. We now ‘understand’ that all actions are caused by prior circumstances, and the boundary between ‘understand’ and ‘excuse’ is blurred. This fierce de-moralisation (as opposed to demoralisation without the hyphen) redefines justice in terms of equalising life experiences rather than personal wrongdoing that deserves punishment.

The stage is set for the emergence of restorative approaches to discipline in schools. When a relationship between pupils has turned sour, even to the point of bullying and violence, the ultimate goal nowadays is to restore that relationship through empathy, contrition and reconciliation. Enlightenment, not punishment, is the agent of positive change.

This philosophy is extrapolated to cover any misdemeanour. If only the miscreant can be helped appreciate the error of their ways, or if only the underlying emotional problem can be tackled, behaviour will improve. That central tenet of Humanism—the inherent goodness of human nature—is taken for granted. Bad behaviour is more malfunction than malevolence. Counselling, not punishment, is the solution.

There is a good side to some of these trends. There is much to debate and delicate balances to be struck. Do I think that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction? Yes. More concerning still is the lack of any indication of deceleration, let alone a change in direction.

I am not aware of any society in the history of human civilisation that did not think it appropriate and necessary to punish children, but the most liberal and ‘progressive’ Western societies are heading towards being the first. Faced with increasingly unruly and disobedient schoolchildren, one might have expected educationalists to seek to counter the disruptive effects of weak contemporary parenting; but the educational momentum continues away from authority, admonition and punishment. 

Swimming against the cultural tide, it is now necessary to look afresh at the rationale for punishing children.

A rationale for punishments in schools

  1. Justice

Punishments can deter and rehabilitate, but the central reason to punish is the administration of justice. Punishment is deserved. Wrongdoers should not get away with it. We do not believe that the rapist should be punished just to be reformed and to deter others, but inherently because he deserves it. Those of an extreme liberal persuasion might like to dismiss this sentiment as crude vengeance, but the desire to see justice done is lofty, is potent in the young, and should not be confused with any unsavoury emotional drive. 

The fact that we believe that punishment should be proportional to the seriousness of the ‘crime’ shows that we hold a deep belief in punishment being deserved. Deterrence and rehabilitation do not make a similar demand of proportionality. 

Moral relativism, the belief that all moral statements are mere expressions of subjective opinion, holds considerable sway in our culture. Where there is moral relativism in the air, moral failures no longer justify punishment—how illiberal to punish someone just because they act on different, but equally valid, moral opinions!

When caught off guard, professing relativists quickly show their true colours as moral realists when confronted with, say, child abuse or (even minor) infractions against themselves. At heart, we are all moral realists and we all have a basic belief that some acts are wrong, and that punishment in proportion to the wrongness of an act is just. Children need to understand this vital principle if they are to make sense of adult society and the criminal justice system. The causal link between wrongdoing and punishment underlines to them the seriousness of personal moral choice.

We are not swimming against the tide to induct children into this mindset. It is already hardwired into their brains as a conscience and intuitive sense of justice. We’re just affirming what’s already there.

  1. Contract

A contractarian approach to ethics is popular, viewing right and wrong as the product of a mutually agreed social contract. This is an inadequate foundation for a moral system, however, as it lapses into socio-cultural relativism. It describes law better than it describes morality. Be that as it may, abiding by the agreed code of a group is an important (though not absolute) principle. This sort of thinking in education comes through in anti-bullying charters, class agreed guidelines of behaviour and the like.

If ‘we’ have agreed to refrain from a particular behaviour—say, bullying—what should happen when someone does it anyway, regardless of the social pressure to conform? The perpetrator has decided that their desire to do it overruled the agreement not to. They have therefore benefitted from their disobedience. The scales need rebalancing. If one is seen to break the rules without obvious consequence, others begin to wonder why they should not follow suit? What is the point of a contract that is not binding, that can be transgressed with impunity, children will ask? There’s no point in agreeing that something is unacceptable if it appears in practice to be accepted.

  1. Deterrence

Punishment deters. Even if the perpetrator is not deterred by punishment, others will be. As well as considering the outcome for an individual, the authority figure cannot neglect to consider the wider effect on onlookers. However valuable a restorative conversation might be, the room is looking on to see what the consequences of the action will be.

That’s the way society operates. For example, public awareness campaigns may slow down drivers, but it is the fear of progressive punishment that deters many drivers from speeding, thus keeping everyone safer. Similarly, the deterrent effect of punishments can reduce the incidence of misbehaviours in schools. This might not proceed from the noblest motive, but at least the school and the lesson can function better for everyone.

The lesson of all societies is that punishments deter undesirable behaviours.

  1. Training

We hope that young people will understand moral values from an early age and find motivation within themselves to act rightly—but there is more to character development than that. 

Habit influences our actions. Much of our behaviour is not carefully considered, but we just unthinkingly act in our customary way. Forming good habits is a crucial part of character development. Habits are formed by repetition. 

Where positive behaviour is reinforced and bad behaviour punished, children can begin to behave well and develop good habits despite an incomplete understanding of the reasons why. This conditioning or training might seem inferior and shallow, and we must always aim to bring a robust understanding to back it up; but it is important, particularly in younger children.

  1. Restorative

Punishment can be restorative. When a person realises their guilt or the harm that they have done, accepting a punishment is a natural reaction, confirming the sincerity of the contrition. Punishment follows the assignment of guilt, and submitting to a punishment symbolises the completion of the process.

There is no reason to view punishment and restoration as opposed to each other. As a teacher with some experience in this area, I can say that I have sometimes felt that extensive discussion and relationship repair was the best route. Sometimes, when further discussion seemed pointless, punishment was more suitable. Often, a combination of the two was most appropriate. The current emphasis on restorative approaches seems set on diminishing and even eliminating anything recognisable as a punishment.

  1. Creating space for mercy

A purely restorative approach will enjoy a benefit in its early stages: there will be a feeling that the deserved punishment has been mercifully withdrawn, leading to a positive feeling of appreciation. However, as C.S. Lewis wrote, the flower of mercy can only grow in the cracks between the rocks of justice, and as Shakespeare wrote, the quality of mercy is not strained. Once any concept of wrongdoing deserving punishment is lost, people can never feel that they are being treated mercifully.

There might be occasions when the merciful withholding of punishment is the best way forward, but this graciousness is rendered meaningless and ineffective in a context where punishment does not exist.

  1. Preparation for citizenship

What is a young person brought up in exclusively restorative systems going to expect when they are pulled over for speeding? A serious chat in the back of the police car? When a fine ensues, will they be unwilling to accept the right of a proper authority to impose a punishment to everyone’s benefit?

The criminal justice system is a vital element of our society, standing between civilisation and anarchy. Of course, many of a liberal persuasion wish to transform the justice system to place more emphasis on restoration and reconciliation rather than punishment. Fair enough, but not even the most radical are proposing cancelling criminal sentences completely—and children do have a habit of becoming adults. 

  1. Lesser punishments might make fewer exclusions necessary

Permanent exclusion from school (expulsion, to those of older generations) is a major life event: humiliating and disrupting in the extreme. No other punishment in school even begins to compare to its seriousness. Might it be the case with some pupils that more severe punishments at earlier stages of the disciplinary process might have changed their course, diverting them from the destination of exclusion?

  1. Differentiation

Different approaches might work better with different young people. A simplistic one-size-fits-all strategy might fail to connect with some. For example, boy and girls tend to differ in their behaviour and response to adults. While girls tend to be keener to please and to take steps to maintain a positive relationship, boys can be more willing to push at the boundaries regardless of the evident disapproval of an adult.

A relational, restorative approach will tend to work better with girls, while boys might respond better to a firm categorical warning/punishment style. While most behaviour problems in school involve boys, shifting to a more feminine-attuned method might be unwise.

  1.  Respect for authority

Respect for proper authority is a vital element in positive citizenship. The authority of a teacher needs to depend on more than being able to persuade pupils to behave well. When a pupil misbehaves in front of other pupils, the teacher’s authority is undermined in the eyes of the class. If this is dealt with through private restorative discussion, this authority is not restored. When appropriate, the teacher needs to be able to respond to misbehaviour or disrespect in front of the same audience that witnessed it.

Giving a punishment can achieve this. In some schools, a fear prevails that giving a punishment like this would inflame the situation; but if that consideration drives policy, I would say that discipline has already broken down. 

  1. Available school punishments can be effective

Detentions and impositions of additional written work are inconvenient, time-wasting and boring, thus bearing significant deterrent weight. For low-level issues like repeated homework failure, ball games indoors, lateness, etc., a pupil’s cost-benefit analysis can easily be swung by such sanctions. 

If a school feels unable to enforce such sanctions, again, I’d say that discipline has broken down and steps need to be taken to restore it, rather than policy being set to accommodate a form of lawlessness. 

Some pupils may claim that they would prefer a traditional punishment instead of engaging in a restorative process. This may be because the restorative discussions are challenging and make explicit the harm done by the pupil. Alternatively, it could just be because a thirteen-year-old boy (for example) finds prolonged, intense discussion about his feelings uncomfortable, more apt for females and adults.

Perhaps he’d much prefer a telling-off than an investigation into the psychological factors leading to him throwing a ball around indoors again; but deliberate weaponising of lengthy counselling as a punishment substitute will, quite apart from being disingenuous, ultimately undermine the effectiveness of such counselling when it really is needed.

  1.  Calibration

A graded system of punishments calibrates the moral code in a school, so that all can understand the seriousness of various offences and the progress of persistent offenders through the disciplinary system. A purely restorative system does not convey the relative seriousness of poor behaviours, as each and every one leads to a private restorative process. Punishment communicates the gravity of a misdemeanour to the perpetrator, any victims, and the wider community. Actions speak louder than words—or, at the very least, words alone are not enough.

  1. The inadequacy of utilitarianism

Restorative approaches often rely on elucidating the harm done by an action, but there is more to morality than avoiding harming others. A thirteen-year-old might argue that his skipping a class did not harm anyone else. If the whole emphasis when reacting to bad behaviour is harm done to others, an inadequate lowest common denominator morality ensues. 

When people enamoured of restorative approaches try to assess the harm done by an action, the analysis brought to bear is usually too individualistic and too short-term. What harm does it do when a boy wears green socks instead of the specified uniform black socks? Nothing—from an individualistic, short-term perspective.

But how is the boy’s citizenship development affected by habitually breaking the rules and getting away with it? Is the ethos of the school eroded by casual displays of rule-breaking? Will it be possible to persuade the boy of these more subtle and indirect effects? What happens if one cannot? A punishment can still restrain such behaviour, even without the fuller understanding that is ultimately desirable.

More broadly, a constant emphasis on do-it-yourself utilitarian reasoning will distort young people’s moral philosophy in a permissive direction. 



Restorative approaches have always formed a part of educational practice, and a greater emphasis on them could be beneficial in some contexts. There is no reason, however, why the range of responses available to teachers should be restricted to these. 

The rationale for punishment is clear and multifaceted, as I have argued. It should not be assumed that moving ever further down the road to an exclusively restorative approach is obviously beneficial.

It is easy to cast restorative approaches as kindly, humane and empathic, and therefore to imply that their proponents and practitioners are particularly kind, enlightened and caring. The potential here for virtue-signalling is considerable. In contrast, punishment involves making children do things that they don’t like, often making them unhappy; in a sentimental and indulgent age, those who follow the crowd will drift away from it. Those who see some punishment as being in children’s best interests can be made to feel old-fashioned, harsh and uncaring.

The research cited to demonstrate the effectiveness of restorative approaches in Scotland is of pitiful quality, rendered virtually worthless by the use of small convenience samples that over-represent enthusiasts. And even these biased samples fail to show strong support for restorative approaches. As I have argued, anecdotes recorded are damning and establish a link between deteriorating discipline and the adoption of restorative approaches.

In my decades driving a car, I have been spoken to in the back of a police car about the dangers of driving too fast. I have been given the opportunity to go on a speed awareness course, and I fully understand that kinetic energy is proportional to the square of velocity. I have been given a few fines. At one point, my penalty points put me in danger of disqualification—I’ve never driven as carefully as I did in that period.

I’m no reckless driver and I know I have a responsibility for the safety of others and myself, but still there are times when fear of punishment keeps my speed down to somewhere below what I think I can get away with. The police and justice system have used these various means to make me more responsible, law-abiding and safe.

Schools should be similarly wise, using a variety of means, carrot and stick, instead of putting all of their eggs in one basket.