School punishments – what is ‘reasonable’ or ‘usual?’

We have come a long way in terms of what are considered to be reasonable sanctions in schools. Gone are the days of the Victorian school era where pupils were likely to receive punishments eliciting fear, shame, embarrassment and anxiety and this would be supported by the courts. Since then the government has banned corporal punishment and set out guidance in the form of the Behaviour and Discipline in Schools which states what are acceptable (and reasonable) punishments in schools.

Reasonable Punishments

The DfE considers that reasonable punishments can include: a verbal reprimand, extra work or repeating unsatisfactory work until it meets the required standard, the setting of written tasks as punishments, such as

  • writing lines or an essay 
  • loss of privileges – for instance the loss of a prized responsibility
  • not being able to participate in a non-uniform day 
  • missing break time 
  • detention including during lunch-time, after school and at weekends
  • school-based community service or imposition of a task – such as picking up litter or weeding school grounds
  • tidying a classroom 
  • helping clear up the dining hall after meal times 
  • removing graffiti
  • regular reporting including early morning reporting
  • scheduled uniform and other behavior checks
  • being placed “on report” for behavior monitoring.

In cases of more extreme behavior, schools may use temporary or permanent exclusion.

Confiscation

The guidance also gives schools powers to confiscate inappropriate items and to search students without consent. It advises on when seclusions/isolation rooms should be used but clarifies this by advising that they should only be used for limited periods and a child should never be prevented from leaving the room of their own free will.

Proportionality and Human Rights

A punishment must be proportionate to the behavior and breach of the Behavior Policy. And it must be reasonable.  In determining whether it is reasonable, section 91 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 says the penalty must be reasonable in all the circumstances and that account must be taken of the pupil’s age, any special educational needs or disability they may have, and any religious requirements affecting them. And European human rights legislation actually goes much further than just the banning of physical abuse, stating that all punishments must not just be "reasonable" but should never be "cruel or humiliating". The sanctions listed in the guidance are all considered to be reasonable sanctions, and although schools can add to the list, they can only do so provided that such sanctions do not promote fear, shame, embarrassment and anxiety, or be cruel.

Purpose of sanctions

The schools should be able to demonstrate what they consider they are trying to achieve by giving out the sanctions. Children misbehave for a variety of reasons and schools should show that they have tried to find the root of the problem.

The law and practice referred to in this article or webinar has been paraphrased or summarised. It might not be up-to-date with changes in the law and we do not guarantee the accuracy of any information provided at the time of reading. It should not be construed or relied upon as legal advice in relation to a specific set of circumstances.

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