The blame on the board

12th January 1996 at 00:00
Jennie Stockbridge compares the suitability of using 'names on the board' discipline in primary and secondary contexts.

Maintaining discipline in schools has always been difficult. In the present climate, where parental and children's rights take precedence and many disciplinary strategies are no longer considered appropriate, it is inevitable that innovative methods of class control will emerge. One such is the "names on the board" system.

There are a number of reasons why this system found favour in the secondary sector, where it originated. Increasingly, lessons were being interrupted by disruptive pupils who not only chose to misbehave but also wasted a great deal of time arguing when sanctioned. The result was that all the pupils were suffering because lessons became disjointed. Further factors are the continual questioning by some parents of the suitability of any punishment given and their claims of victimisation.

The advantage of the "names on the board" system is that it is rigid. Both parents and pupils are told the exact penalty which will ensue from having one's name on the board and it is made quite clear that there will be no deviation and no argument. Further measures are taken when a pupil continues to offend frequently. On the whole the system seems to have been successful and its success has possibly been greatest where it is coupled with a reward system.

As so often happens when a good idea becomes fashionable, it begins to be used in areas where it is inappropriate or even damaging. A discipline system designed for the secondary sector and, by its very nature, inflexible, does not necessarily suit primary schools, where the ethos is different.

There are many good reasons for this. There is a very different classroom situation. Although advocated by some, whole-class teaching is rare. Therefore, while a disruptive child will still cause problems, it is less likely that the flow of learning of the majority of the class will be interrupted. Most primary classes have one or sometimes two teachers for the whole of the day. Therefore the need to issue immediate sanctions (as opposed to taking immediate action to stop the disruption) is not so vital.

It is also clear that a full understanding of the system is essential. Children and their parents must be made fully aware of what is required of them. Some younger children may not fully comprehend the connection between having their names written on the board and condemnatory letters being sent to their parents days or even weeks later.

Encouragement is particularly important in the primary school. This is the time when a child's problems should be identified and dealt with and where an enthusiasm for learning should be engendered. The "names on the board" system with its rigid set of sanctions and total lack of provision for rewarding improvement does not seem to be suited to young children who may still be learning appropriate group behaviour. While some may consider it a good stick, there is little carrot in evidence. Half-termly reviews with commendations for most and devastating condemnation for others, even when they may have shown a steady improvement, is unlikely to enhance that child's perception of school.

Another more serious aspect of this method of discipline is its misuse. As with any education theory, its misapplication by poor practitioners can have disastrous effects. In the present situation where class sizes are increasing there is a temptation to overuse a system which appears to be a simple solution to the problem of class control. Instead of "names on the board" being employed as a measure to control misbehaviour, it may well be used for minor "offences" such as not sitting up straight at the appropriate time or complaining when disturbed by another child (telling tales?) or even protesting innocence (answering back). Many seven- year-olds are still very immature and restless; some may have been unfortunate enough only to have just over two years in the infant school. They will soon learn a more mature behaviour but not if their spirit is broken by a system which is too harsh and rigid to be appropriate for their age.

And where does the child's work feature in all this? If the system is over-used, it becomes the "be all and end all" in the classroom. The pupil's problems, potential and individualism, which make primary classrooms such exciting places, are all kept at a distance and may eventually result in classes where fear of sanction inhibits many of those who have most to offer.

For the child who finds settling into the junior school a major step, the label of "naughty" and the bewilderment caused by over-zealous use of "names on the board" can cause irreparable damage. Parents are left with an unhappy child who may well become school-phobic - and who can blame them!

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