Punishment, by Sean Bellamy – Progressive Education


”When people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.”

Albert Einstein

There was a rule at Sands until recently that fridges could not be dropped out of trees. There was never any corresponding punishment created. This rule has recently been removed because there are no longer any fridges in the grounds awaiting this sort of experimentation.

In fact, ‘fridge dropping’ happened only once, but the event soon became part of our mythology. No one wanted to remove it from the list of written rules. It seemed so ludicrous that its presence seemed to say something profound about the schools attitude to behaviour and punishment. There are very few written rules and these are regularly reviewed in order that the truly irrelevant ones can be abandoned.

So there are no detentions and nobody has ever been set lines or any academic work as a punishment for poor behaviour. Just as we would hope that mopping a floor is not automatically viewed as a punishment, so we would hope that writing a hundred lines of anything is seen as positive thing to do.

The use of or possession of any controlled substance is not allowed and breaking of these rules leads to automatic suspension. Expulsion is an option if the school feels that a student cannot be trusted to uphold this core principle and care for themselves or others. But we always hope that we can learn through a process of reflection and once this has happened any other consequence looks more like revenge.

There is no uniform code as there is no uniform, although there is an unspoken expectation that what we wear does not offend others. No one may wear shoes upstairs. This protects the carpets from mud. The big loop-hole is that there is no corresponding rule to stop the ‘wearing of bare feet’ and as bare feet carry just as much mud as boots then the carpets do get dirty.

And although it is common sense to preserve our carpets as long as possible, it did take months for everyone to change their previous habits, and we have saved thousands of pounds which we have spent on more creative things. So dry, bare feet are allowed and we remain ever hopeful that our students and some of our staff develop the skill to remove feet as well as shoes in wet weather. And we love the fact that we can all go barefooted at any time of the year and maybe dirty carpets are a fair price to pay for this freedom. Common sense is a strange thing isn’t it? It is a fragile thing particularly in our post truth world or rather it speaks its truth ever more quietly and is hard to hear in the cacophony of opinion that floods the airwaves.

And just as in a family, the rules that are sensible tend to have a much longer life than the ones that are not.

A very long time ago, within the first few years of the school starting, we all agreed upon a rule that no one, staff or students, should go to the local shop for chocolate, crisps or drinks until break-time or lunch. The shop was just over the road. The logic was that because staff and students were ‘nipping’ across the road for a snack between classes, many of us were arriving late for class. It was really irritating for everyone who arrived on time.

The majority voted for a new rule.

Half the school, staff and students, went to the shop as soon as the ‘Meeting’ ended. People argued that it would take less than one minute to visit the shop, and although this was blatantly not true, what was true was that getting a snack would interfere less with the smooth running of class than being hungry and thirsty.

The rule had lasted for approximately thirty minutes. We officially abandoned it the following week. But we now have a rule that anyone arriving more than 10 minutes late to a class can be excluded, if the class feels it appropriate. I was excluded from my own History class while strolling in late with a cup of tea and an excuse about an important phone call. Message received!

If you eat school lunch, then you wash up once a week. You are in a team of staff and students. And everyone is expected to tidy at the end of the day. Having no cleaners ensures that we all appreciate the value of tidying and taking responsibility for our own mess. Even teenagers, whose bedrooms, according to parents, resemble war zones, are often amazing at ‘Useful Work’.

Students are elected to co-ordinate this tidying process and they are the ones who remind, cajole and hand out punishments for the pathologically lazy. We all agree that those who fail to tidy are essentially expecting that others do their job for them. When ‘ found out ‘ they are then required, in turn, to do the number of hours owed in washing up. Failing that, the work phobic get to explain to the Meeting why their friends and colleagues should carry the school for them.

You are meant to walk with your skateboard into town and running on the garden walls, no matter how exciting, is prohibited. The walls are old and in constant need of repair but there are very tall trees to climb, fires to light and sit around, skate ramps and a very vertical climbing wall in an old chapel. We are not averse to risk.

All these rules have been arrived at through consultation and a process of voting with the staff and children in School Meetings over many years. Contentious issues lead to secret ballots or we search for consensus. But we always aim to keep the number of written rules and guidelines to a minimum. The lack of them either says something about how chaotic or just how well behaved the students are.

A friend of mine from Glasgow, said that in one particularly violent night club he used to frequent, there was a poster on the door announcing the prohibition of drugs, knives and prostitution.

The night club was famous for its knife crime, street drugs and prostitutes. Rules didn’t prevent crime and violence. They just identified which ones to expect if you made it through the doors.

Similarly, school rules seem to reveal the pathologies that each school faces. ‘You may not run in the corridors, wear your tie a certain way, you may not do this and this behaviour is banned’. The rules rarely create a change in behaviour. Rules, punishment and rewards define the boundaries of any given culture. And the rules at Sands, just as in the Glasgow night club, describe the everyday behaviours that the majority feel need to be challenged.

So, at Sands, based on this principle, expect to see children and adults walking around with bare feet, making mess throughout the day, running on walls, skating where they shouldn’t, arriving late for things, forgetting to wash up and rarely, experimenting with drugs and alcohol.

When a friend read this last paragraph, they told me that it sounded as if I was describing the average family with teenagers. Not a school. If that is the case, then I think maybe we should be really proud.

The rules we do have address the everyday cultural problems that this informal, human scale atmosphere creates.

At the heart of that informality is the belief that children are essentially wise and that if they are given the space and trust, they will use school wisely and behave well most of the time.

The behaviour that is consistently good needs no rule, but it benefits from us acknowledging it and isn’t it fascinating how invisible the well behaved can become?

Similarly, if this system applies, fridges are no longer dropped out of trees, students wear appropriate clothing, are kind to each other, behave well in class and are keen to learn, do not consistently vandalise the school and are generally polite to staff and each other. Certainly, the absence of rules about these things may well be relevant.

Yet there are sufficiently few rules at Sands to allow everyone space to create their own code of conduct. That does not mean that we experience perfect behaviour, but students do feel that they are able to make personal decisions about their school life and are able to take responsibility for that behaviour and any sanctions they face as a result. The lack of petty rules means that we are not in permanent low level conflict with students. The opposite is true of most other schools I have visited. The majority of Sands students uphold the rules because they know that they have discussed them and designed them.

The rules comfortably fit onto one sheet of A4 paper. There is a similar democratic school in America and their rule book runs to 25 pages!

In this environment, it is easier to discuss with the children why they break the few rules that we do have. The Student Council [an elected body of six students and sometimes a teacher] initially handles all these infringements, often with greater skill than the adults. Tutors are drawn in to act as advocates for their tutees if necessary and discussion continues in the hope that behaviour changes.

Often, when a child gains some insight into their own poor behaviour and its impact on others, then they don’t transgress again. Though we do have punishments, we have found that they are often less effective tools to encourage reflection than conversation. And reflection is at the root of better behaviour. Punishment looks more like revenge if it is meeted out after the student has already acknowledged that their behaviour needs to change.

”When a child can be brought to tears, and not from fear of punishment, but from realisation and repentance the child needs no chastisement”

Horace Mann

What is apparent is that most of us choose to behave well because it is the right thing to do and not just because of the rules or fear of punishment.

Clearly, we are very lucky to be able to work in a small school with only seventy five teenagers. Human scale communities have the luxury to find the human scale solutions that are denied some bigger institutions. However, we do attract the mavericks, the rebellious and often those who have failed or been failed by bigger schools. Some come disillusioned with adults and education. The freedom we offer to re-engage with learning on their own terms is the same freedom that allows them to misbehave and make mistakes.

And even poor behaviour can be seen as resource. When the students witness the transgressors treated with understanding and respect, then they too may model that in their own lives. Of course, everything including mopping floors, suspension and just apologising should be available as consequences for bad behaviour. It does not mean that the school needs to be complacent about the outcome or punishments, only that they should be arrived at in a way which demonstrates intelligence and compassion. That may well be easier in a small school.

Recently when visiting a local school considered the ‘Microsoft’ of Comprehensives, I was told that they have an inflexible uniform code and similarly immovable code of punishments because strictness about these things prevented more serious transgressions. What the teacher actually said was that the ‘top button’ rule was there so that students had something less significant to rebel against; that obsession with top buttons meant that staff were more likely to have to deal with this than taking knives off children. Children will rebel against something, he said, so giving them a uniform code to rebel against somehow vaccinated them against the more serious crimes.

“I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be carried out successfully without corporal punishment”

George Orwell

I am sure that large schools face challenging behaviours on a scale incomprehensible to us in the tiny world of Sands. We see fewer children in a week than colleagues in larger schools see in a day. I have nothing but admiration for their skills and resilience, but the reason we created this small school was so that we could remain at a human scale and investigate the potential that exists when children are given space, time and trust to find their own way through this thing we call education.

That means we have the luxury to see what happens when children help design their own rules and the subsequent punishments. What we have discovered is that petty rules create unnecessary conflict and a truly cooperative and compassionate approach to ‘behaviour management’, that relies on discussion rather than penalties, may be at the heart of a happy school.

But, rarely, the most compassionate thing to do is to expel a child. In our culture, we trust children to make good decisions about their school lives; in how they treat each other and how they respect themselves and the school. Just occasionally, a child joins us, who has few internal boundaries and misunderstands our faith in their ability to self-regulate as weakness, and as a result uses the school chaotically to their detriment and others. They break the rules and ignore the guidelines to such an extent that Sands becomes a negative experience for them. And all of us.

In most cases this rejection of the rules is a temporary thing that changes as a student gains insight and develops their self- respect, but if not, they need to know that patience is not an infinite resource. Though we are infinitely patient.

So, perhaps the measure of a school is not just how few rules it needs, but how those rules are arrived at and how they are subsequently upheld. I am guessing that most students in conventional schools don’t stop each other in the corridor to complain about skirt length and top button infringements, but at Sands students often uphold the rules and tell people to take their shoes off upstairs and drag their friends and staff to Useful Work.

“Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment”

Mahatma Gandhi


Sean Bellamy is the co-founder of Sands Democratic School, an Ashoka Foundation Change Leader, a Varkey Global Teaching Ambassador, an advisor to global educational wellbeing projects, and coach and mentor to new democratic and alternative school start ups around the world. 

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