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.