Sanctions and rewards

25th November 2005 at 00:00
The days of the cane are long gone. Increasingly, schools prefer to reward good behaviour rather than punish misdemeanours. But most teachers still find that sanctions are necessary to maintain discipline and motivation. So which deterrents work best? Is it acceptable to make children sit in silence and write lines, or should punishments always be constructive? And if schools are going to offer incentives, how far should they go? With some pupils receiving cinema tickets or driving lessons just for turning up regularly, critics argue that rewards systems are getting out of hand.

Whippings, whackings, beltings and beatings

Corporal punishment became illegal in maintained schools in 1987, and in all UK schools in 1998. But for 400 years before that, countless beatings were dished out in the name of education. In the 17th and 18th centuries, boys were tied to benches before being whipped with birch twigs. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the rattan cane held sway in England, while the Scots preferred a leather belt or "tawse". But teachers on both sides of the border were capable of improvising a beating using slippers, gym shoes, rulers or board rubbers.

An early 1900s punishment book from a school in the north-east reveals that caning offences included "dirty behaviour in closets" and "dancing on seat behind teacher's back". Most canings were three blows, with "six of the best" reserved for serious offences. The 1940s seem to have been especially cruel. A schoolboy of the time recalls how "boys were brutally beaten on the bare backside by the headmaster whilst two male teachers held the struggling victim across a desk. Female teachers were excused witnessing the spectacle, so they would not see a bare backside."

Public schools were notorious for the ferocity - and frequency - of their "whackings". A former pupil of Fettes college in Edinburgh remembers a 1966 caning, after which "for three days my rear ached, the thick weals stayed for two weeks, and the scars finally went about six weeks later". Tony Blair is said to have received a Fettes caning four years later.

In the late 1960s, teaching unions issued guidelines about the use of corporal punishment, and canings were increasingly restricted to the palm of the hand. During the 1970s many schools began to phase out the cane or tawse. Even so, as recently as 1977, a survey by the Educational Institute of Scotland found that a third of 12 to 15-year-old boys were "belted" at least once a fortnight, the frequency of the beatings suggesting that corporal punishment was never the deterrent some enthusiasts would have us believe.

Wrongs and rights

The cane and the tawse are no longer in use, but some boarding schools still send miscreants on early morning runs, the aim of which is to cause physical discomfort. And European human rights legislation actually goes much further than the banning of physical abuse, stating that all punishments must be "reasonable" and should never be "cruel or humiliating". Making a child stand in a corner or sit with their hands on their heads could be deemed a form of humiliation and, as such, in breach of the legislation.

But schools have rights too. Your prospectus isn't just a marketing tool; it also forms part of a legal contract with parents. If your advertising makes it clear that there's a school uniform, for example, then pupils who come to your school must conform to that expectation, despite notionally having a "right to freedom of personal appearance".

In many cases, it's a balancing act. Legally, schools are in loco parentis during school hours, so confiscating property, such as mobile phones, is permissible. On the other hand, it's their duty to return the property within a "reasonable" time limit, and they may be legally responsible for any damage that occurs to confiscated items while they are in the school's care.

Perhaps most importantly of all, pupils should have the right to appeal against any punishments imposed on them. "Educational democracy is good practice," says Marie Parker-Jenkins, author of Sparing the Rod: schools, discipline and children's rights. "All children should be given the chance to defend themselves against accusations. It's no longer feasible for schools to act in the high-handed manner of 40 or 50 years ago."


Detentions have always been a staple sanction in most schools, but nowadays they come in a myriad of forms. There seems to be a growing consensus that small is beautiful. Many schools hold five or 10-minute detentions at break, on the basis that missing out on prime socialising time is a more powerful deterrent than having to stay after hours. Short detentions put less of a burden on staff, and because they take place during the school day there's no need to notify parents.

Getting a pupil to report to you, even for just a couple of minutes, can be as much a pastoral tool as a disciplinary measure. Minor misdemeanours are often a sign of deeper problems, and engineering the chance for a one-to-one chat may allow a troubled pupil to say what's on their mind.

Longer detentions usually involve keeping a child at school outside normal hours. There have been cases of parents challenging a school's right to detain pupils, but none has been successful. The 1997 Education Act gives schools the right to keep pupils back at the end of the day, providing their sanctions policy, a legal requirement for all schools, makes it clear that detentions form part of the range of possible punishments. The school must also give 24 hours' written notice to parents, stating why the detention has been given and for how long the child will have to remain at school. If there's a genuine problem, perhaps concerning transport arrangements, it's in the school's interests to be flexible. For example, "duty of care" obligations mean that if a detained child is knocked down outside school, when at normal going-home time there would have been someone supervising the road-crossing, the school may be guilty of negligence.

Fine by me

Some schools hit pupils in the pocket. At Norwich school, for example, there's a pound;1 fine for chewing gum or leaving bags lying around, while for those caught smoking there's a pound;5 penalty for first-time offenders, rising in multiples of pound;5 for further transgressions. "It means that pupils have a little less money to spend on gum or cigarettes,"

says deputy head Adam Pettitt. But what about the fact that some children can easily afford to pay, while others might struggle? "We always offer an alternative to the fine, such as doing some work around the school grounds.

And if someone seems able to pay the fines too easily, that alerts me to the fact that they may have more spare cash than is necessarily good for them."

Many schools report that children respond positively to financial penalties, seeing it as a "grown-up punishment" that also exists in the "real" world outside school. Collecting fines doesn't add to the staff workload in the same way as supervising detentions, and if the money goes to charity, as happens at Norwich, there's also a positive community element to the punishment.

The principles of punishment

A set of sanctions is most likely to be effective if it is shaped by an overall philosophy and linked closely to the ethos of the school. Many schools feel that involving pupils in drawing up the school rules, and consulting them about appropriate sanctions, is the best way of ensuring that punishments are seen as fair. Some schools have dozens of rules, with a fixed scale of associated sanctions, while others restrict themselves to one or two key statements, such as "treat others as you would wish to be treated".

One widely held principle of effective punishment is that it should never breed resentment. At Hempstalls county primary school in Newcastle, for example, guidelines explicitly discourage staff from giving collective punishments, where the innocent are punished along with the guilty, and from handing out punishments based on suspicion rather than proof. And at St John's College school in Cambridge, staff are encouraged to avoid public denouncement of pupils, which is seen as destructive.

Another common principle holds that the most effective punishments "fit the crime", are in some way constructive, and can be applied without delay.

Some misdemeanours come with off-the-peg punishments that fit nicely.

Pushing in at the front of the queue? Go right to the back. Sticking gum under a table? Clean the underside of every desk in the room. But for more complex issues, such as lying or stealing, tailoring an appropriate sanction may be more difficult.

Text and subtext

The problem with constructive punishments is that they sometimes turn a positive into a negative. Many schools, for example, no longer use litter-picking as a sanction because they want children to see it as a communal responsibility rather than a chore. Almost any punishment can carry a hidden message. Getting children to work in the kitchens, for example, could demean the position of the catering staff. If you set an essay, does that imply that writing is something best avoided? If so, the English department may not be too happy. And if community service is what you're made to do when you've been bad, then why do it voluntarily? Mind-numbing tasks, such as copying out a text, may be a waste of time, but perhaps that pointlessness is their very point.

For constructive punishments to be effective, pupils need to understand that their transgression has in some way diminished the school community, and therefore they must give something back to that community. But getting children to see a break-time spent litter-picking as a service, not a punishment, is easier said than done.

Keeping count

Rewards systems are not new. At the same time that public schools were dishing out floggings, they were also awarding house points for good work.

Nowadays, most schools have their own version of this system, awarding points, cards, stamps, smiley faces, or even pebbles in a jar.

But there are potential problems with rewards systems. Giving merit marks in class is straightforward since a pupil can bring their card or book to the front and have it stamped. But rewarding good behaviour in a busy corridor is not so easy. If points are awarded for good work, where does that leave those who are less academically gifted? Some schools award credits for effort, attainment and behaviour, but that makes life complicated. And how frequently should stamps or points be awarded? One Staffordshire primary introduced a scheme where a stamp was awarded to all pupils who "fulfilled the objectives of the lesson", but then had to change tack because of the burden it imposed on staff if they had to give a stamp to every member of the class.

Whatever criteria are chosen, it's useful to clear the slate frequently so that those pupils down the field don't become demotivated. It's also important to be consistent; often, some teachers will give out points with abandon while others are miserly.

Staff are most likely to subscribe to a rewards system if it is easy to administer. With that in mind, a Huddersfield company, School Rewards, has developed a smart card system, allowing teachers to award points to pupils'

reward cards using a portable "swiper".

How big are your carrots?

Some schools believe that praise is its own reward. Pupils are referred to the head of year, or even the headteacher, for a special word, or there may be regular "praise assemblies" where a roll of honour is read out, listing the achievements of pupils throughout the week.

Other schools make use of certificates or special ties and badges. But increasingly, appealing to pupils' materialism is seen as the best way to motivate them. CD tokens and cinema tickets are popular rewards and have the advantage that they can be given out in large numbers. But some schools are raising the stakes, offering sizeable cash sums, iPods, driving lessons or even chauffeur-driven limousine rides to the end of year prom. At Denefield school in Reading, prizes have included flying lessons, hot-air balloon rides, snowboarding, surfing and, for the less intrepid, makeovers.

Bristol academy rewarded GCSE pupils with a total of pound;37,000 under its incentives scheme this year. The 165 pupils, who were paid pound;10 for reaching predicted grades and pound;5 for every grade above that target, received an average of pound;180 - with one high achiever netting pound;410. Seventeen A-level students who got into university also received pound;500 bursaries. The scheme, funded by the Government's New Deal for Communities, has paid out pound;90,000 in the last three years.

Over the same period, the proportion of pupils gaining five or more good GCSEs has doubled from 26 per cent to 52 per cent.

Another popular incentive scheme is a prize draw, where credits earn you tickets in the draw. Pupils with lots of credits can earn several tickets, increasing their chances. It's shamefully populist and intrinsically unfair, but schools say that it works.

Deeds not words

There's been surprisingly little research into the effects of sanctions and rewards on behaviour and achievement. One of the most extensive studies was conducted by researchers at the University of East Anglia in 2000. Their survey of Year 8, 9 and 10 pupils in the Norwich area found that the most effective sanction in the eyes of pupils was a letter or phone call home to parents, while the least effective was a verbal warning. Similarly, the use of gifts was seen as by far the most effective reward, with verbal praise at the bottom of the list.

However, a majority of pupils claimed their behaviour wasn't altered by the use of rewards and penalties, with only one in four saying they would work less hard if there were no sanctions or rewards. The survey also showed that girls are punished less often than boys, with 64 per cent of girls saying they never received penalties.


Punishments and rewards seem to be an inevitable part of school life.

Society as a whole is governed by laws, and plenty of people, teachers included, are motivated largely by the "reward" of their monthly salary slip. So a carrot and stick approach in schools can be seen as good preparation for life beyond the classroom.

Even independent Summerhill school in Suffolk, renowned for its progressive approach, has a system of sanctions. Punishments are not handed out by staff, but decided at a weekly meeting where the views of pupils and teachers carry equal weight.

But there are still those who dream of schools where punishments don't exist, claiming that sanctions, and rewards, are barriers to effective learning. Alfie Kohn, a leading US educationist, draws a distinction between "intrinsic" motivation, where people do something for its own sake, and "extrinsic" motivation, where they do something in order to get a reward, or because of what will happen to them if they don't.

"These two kinds of motivation tend to be inversely related," Kohn wrote earlier this year in the journal Education World. "So more of the latter may mean less of the former. The type of motivation created by the use of rewards is not only less effective, but also erodes the kind we really want to promote. Both carrots and sticks can be effective at getting one thing and only one thing: temporary compliance."

To some extent, the University of East Anglia study supports this view. The researchers found that in higher attaining schools a formal system of sanctions and rewards was "not valued by staff or pupils", and concluded that good teachers were able to motivate pupils without the use of rewards and penalties.


* School Rewards: 0800 161 3361;

* The software system used at Larbert high school (case study) was developed by Genkior Systems:

* Sparing the Rod: schools, discipline and children's rights by Marie Parker-Jenkins, Trentham Books (1999) pound;17.99.

* University of East Anglia research by Ann Shreeve and Dominic Boddington: nascRewards_and_SanctionsRS_Page1.html.

Did you know?

* A Huddersfield company has developed a smart card system, so that teachers can award children merits using a portable 'swiper'

* Some schools prefer to appeal to pupils' material desires. CD tokens and cinema tickets are popular rewards, but some schools offer sizeable cash sums, iPods, driving lessons or even chauffeur-driven limousine rides to the Year 11 prom

* Some schools impose financial penalties on pupils; a pound;1 fine for chewing gum, or a pound;5 fine for those caught smoking

* European human rights legislation requires that punishments be 'reasonable', and not cruel or humiliating

* A survey of Norwich schoolchildren revealed that a letter home to parents was the most effective sanction, while gifts were seen as the best rewards.

But only one in four said they would work less hard if there were no sanctions or rewards

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