Why collective punishment is sometimes necessary

On my PGCE course in the 1980s, I remember visiting a well known comprehensive school in London which had prominent graffiti sprayed on the walls of several classrooms, just above the blackboards. When someone braver than I was asked the deputy head teacher about it, he simply sighed. The trouble was, he said, that the school didn’t know who was doing it. If they knew, action would be taken. As they didn’t, well, what could they do? They had asked for the pupils to own up. They had asked pupils for information about who might be responsible. In his view, nothing more could be done since it was important to ensure that only the guilty were punished.

Well, yes, but….  I recalled this incident after reading this post by David Didau which contained the following line: Never be tempted into using collective punishment: they will hate you for it. I then went on to read his previous post on this issue. Since I normally agree with David’s position on education issues, it was interesting for me to find something about which I have some reservations.

Firstly, I would say that there is such a thing as collective responsibility. In our lives we can all suffer because of one person’s mistake. Children do need to learn that their individual choices and behaviour can affect others, not just themselves. In my experience, while it is true that a minority of miscreants do not care one way or the other, most children want to be liked and respected by their peers and will therefore think twice before indulging in behaviour which could cause their becoming resented by others.

Secondly, collective punishment can be very effective in getting the miscreant(s) to own up to their misdeed(s). In my teaching career, I have lost count of the number of occasions that some incident has occurred (eg. a mobile phone going off, an abusive comment) when no one initially owns up. Sometimes simply stating  that the class will therefore have to be kept in has led to either a child owning up to a misdeed, or peer pressure making them to do so. If that fails, keeping the class behind and getting the pupils to write down individually, anonymously and in silence what they thought happened can be very effective with those children who are frightened of owning up, for fear of the shame in having to tell their parents. How many of us have had a parent on the phone convinced that their son/daughter never lies? In my experience, if the weight of evidence is against them in statements by others in the class, they usually admit their misdemeanour. “So what are you saying – five other people in the class said you did it – are you saying that they are all lying to get you into trouble? Do they hate you that much – if so, we need to do something about it!” is usually effective.

Now, I would always say that it is our job as teachers to try to identify those who caused the disruption. Only if the miscreants do not own up should we move to possible collective sanctions. For what is the alternative? If you say “never use collective punishments” you are simply sending the message to children that the main thing is not the misbehaviour, but avoiding getting caught. Collective punishment, if used sparingly and under the circumstances I have set out, sends the message that misbehaviour will always have consequences and that our failure to own up to it can lead to consequences for others.

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9 Responses to Why collective punishment is sometimes necessary

  1. suecowley says:

    It’s a good argument but I really don’t like the idea of collective sanctions. My main concern is that it has the potential to encourage a kind of group bullying towards certain individuals. A group can sometimes turn on its weakest member if a teacher gives them the option. It’s not something we’d use at preschool, certainly.

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  2. Kevin Moody says:

    I would never advocate collective punishments ; creates the wrong atmosphere in a classroom and ultimately does not build positive relationships that is the key to good behaviour and engagement . Young people believe in fairness and for those who have behaved well where is the fairness in bring punished for the poor behaviour of others ?

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    • fish64 says:

      Collective punishment is not appropriate most of the time. As I say in my post, we should always try to identify the miscreants and simply saying “anyone else talks and the whole class gets kept behind” is wrong. But when no one initially owns up to a misdemeanour, I think it is needed, if only to flush out the miscreant who is not owning up. Some children are nervous about owning up – not always because of the school, but because they might get into trouble at home. Children need to learn to take responsibility for their actions.

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  3. Pique Boo says:

    If it were credibly “necessary” then it would be a lot more prevalent, especially given the ubiquity of your sample triggers e.g. mobile phone going off. Then most children, especially secondary age children, know very well that individual actions can affect others e.g. stick your foot out in front of another Reception age child as they walk by and they tend to fall over. The age of criminal responsibility is 10 years-old, as opposed to say 16, because we expect them to understand a few things by the age of 10. The initial lesson/message for children here is simply that yet another authoritative school adult is prepared to act like a classic Bad Guy.

    Not that most schools acting in the place of parents are genuinely interested in parental views any more than those detached progressive ideologists are willing to perceive the real consequences of their ideas, but my experience says the overwhelming majority of us parents are against this. Something like a whole-class detention is superficially trivial, but amongst various deeper problems you are undermining values many of us have spent all those years embedding/supporting. For instance, most of us teach them not to get what they want at other children’s expense, which at very young ages starts with sharing sweets nicely etc. With collective punishment you model the opposite i.e. yes you can have what you want, in this scenario a confession, at other children’s expense.

    I want stronger consequences consistently applied to children you catch breaking the rules, not consequences for all the innocent ones when you’re not sure whodunnit. I do not want adults using my child as a tool to help control other children or coerced into applying ‘peer pressure’. She’s had that in spades (including quite a few serious physical assaults from children getting their 27th last chance) as several teacher’s obvious choice of the least-worst child for the hot-seat next to the badly behaved: she’s a saintly, very high-achiever so can apparently afford it if your world-view is confined to test outcomes. It’s nearly Y9 now and I’ve pretty much had my fill of what school-side takes from both my child and many of the others, for the sake of a few.

    Collective punishments are yet more straws on a fairly large pile and not appreciated. Didau’s alternative recipe is an ugly compromise, but Sprogette experienced her very first example of one of those in a Y8 class a couple of months ago when unsurprisingly she was first on the list of children excused from that punishment. I liked that positive recognition of her good behaviour, stoic restraint and so on, which has very rarely happened since the Sitting Quietly stickers period when her school-side life began. FWIW it’s the kind of thing that does no harm whatsoever to her peer relations, but I suppose it might if the relevant children are those attention-seeking types who go a bit overboard to please teachers.

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  4. fish64 says:

    I understand where you are coming from, particularly with your concern about a well behaved child being sat next to a child who is frequently in trouble – I try to avoid this if at all possible. Nevertheless, I feel, as do a lot of parents I have spoken to over the years, that we as teachers have a duty to try to identify the perpetrators, rather than simply shrug our shoulders as the deputy head of the school I visited did, or enter a game of “lets see if I can avoid being caught, because if I’m not caught nothing will happen”.
    Getting children to write statements when no one owns up to something does indeed take up the time of a lot of innocent children, but a similar thing happens when police investigate a crime and the time of a lot of innocent people is taken with making statements. My problem with David Didau’s solution is that occasionally I have known a child who has never previously broken a rule do something silly or wrong. They are often the children most afraid of owning up, since they are aware that their parents would feel let down.

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    • Pique Boo says:

      The witness statement stuff isn’t really collective punishment and I don’t think any reasonable parent can object to that. Sprogette wrote a few in the last year including one where she was the victim of yet another theft by the class klepto, and I hardly blinked except the first time to advise her to only write about what she had personally observed and not to include any hearsay etc.

      Pragmatically the bigger problem here, and I very much doubt this is unique, is that very little of this stuff ever seems to change anything and I get to listen to much the same stories about the same children over the dinner table next week. My “27th last chance” wasn’t flippant.

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  5. Requires Improvement says:

    That’s the dilemma. Classic collective punishment (“if anyone makes a noise, everyone will stay behind”) isn’t on. On the other hand, saying that teachers can’t do anything bad to anyone without high confidence that they’ve identified the guilty party is a wedge that breaks up a lot of behaviour management in schools. As a science teacher, the one I’m horribly aware of is the “The bell may be about to go, but your table is a mess, and I can’t let you go until it’s OK for the next class”. That’s a collective issue. In an ideal world, I could calibrate 30 individual responses, but in a real class…
    Part of the issue is how small a lot of school sanctions are. If a 15 min detention is seen as a basic entry-level sanction, I can understand why staying behind for 5 mins “so we can work out what happened” is seen as a major aggressive act. Heck, I’ve been resented for keeping classes in until the bell went!

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  6. georgessimplon says:

    I used to have collective punishment as one of the tools the trade. It was recommended as a strategy by other teachers in my NQT year. I didn’t like it, and don’t generally use it – but there are circumstances where it might be necessary.

    However, going back to your graffiti example, I’d want to know why the graffiti wasn’t removed immediately. Graffiti breeds graffiti. It’s a blatant defiance of authority, and left up there, it sends the message the adults are not in charge of the school. Defiance breeds defiance – get it down!

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