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Pedagogies of punishment: how, why and for what should state schools in a liberal democracy punish students?



Research on state school discipline within liberal democracies has tended to prioritize efficacy over justice (APA 2008, Holden 2017), leaving issues about whether, why and how (if at all) schools should punish students relatively unexplored. Recent research casts doubt on the efficacy of punishments (Geddes 2006, Greene 2009, Kohn 1993, DfE 2013), and ‘punishment’ has become something of an unwanted name in favour of ‘consequences’. Although, registering some conceptual scepticism, Joseph Lee of The Telegraph notes that staff at one punishment-free school, “work hard to maintain the distinction between inevitable consequences” and “punishment” (2015). While the concept of restorative justice has generated interest (Oxley 2016, Sherman and Strang 2007, Flanagan 2014, Thorsborne and Blood 2013), such practices are uncommon (Oxley 2015), retain punitive elements (Sherman 2013), and make extra demands of scarce time and resources. 

Concerns about schools’ punitive practices frequently surface in national papers. This is unsurprising since on the one hand society has an interest in socialising children, and on the other hand, arbitrary, inequitable uses of disciplinary power are both intrinsically wrong and can have profound negative impact on children’s life chances. Paul Dix argues that “Damaged children need people, not increasingly severe punishment” (2012) while Jessica Shepherd, relays teachers’ concerns that “behaviour has grown considerably worse since the abolition of corporal punishment” (2012). Furthermore, consciousness is rising about equitability of disciplinary practices, with Derek Darby and John Rury reporting in a New York Times Op-ed piece, that “black students are punitively disciplined for relatively minor infractions”, “white students who commit more serious infractions are punished less severely” (Darby and Rury 2012).  

Various justifications can be invoked for why one would use punishments: just desert, deterrence (Smart, 1961), and personal formation (Weijers 2000, Hand 2017). However, defences of these are rare.  Rarer still are discussions of the scope of enforceable actions in school contexts; i.e. those that ought to be deterred by or paid for through punishment (Peters, 1966). On the other hand, these debates are well developed in the context of the criminal law and law of torts (e.g. Primoratz 1989, Tadros 2005, 2008, 2011). While the findings within that literature pertain centrally to adults and cannot be imported without contextual sensitivity to children and schooling, the applicability of rationales for punishing adults to punishing children is something that must be examined (Curren 2002).Questions regarding the justice of punishment in schools which have received insufficient consideration, include the following:  

  1. What is the proper scope of punishable behaviour in schools?
  2. When (if at all) are children liable for punishment?
  3. Are some children less liable than others?
  4. What punishments (if any) are appropriate?
  5. What justifications (if any) make them so?
  6. To what extent can just expectations be codified? 
  7. Can groups ever properly be punished as groups for committing wrongs as groups?
  8. Can bypassing or subverting children’s reasoning be legitimate means of behavioural influence?