Litter-picking as punishment

I felt really disappointed when I heard last weekend that Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, is going to recommend litter-picking as a potential punishment for school pupils who behave badly. This is, apparently, what is to be included in a major overhaul of school discipline guidelines to be announced shortly. The existing guidance to schools stops short of outlining potential sanctions.

The types of punishment that Mr Gove has in mind include : school-based community service (picking up litter, weeding school grounds, tidying classrooms and the dining hall or removing graffiti), writing lines or an essay, loss of privileges (eg not being able to participate in a non-uniform day) and being “on report” (eg attending school early in the morning or at other times).

I don’t have a problem with most of the sanctions suggested above. It is with the litter-picking activity in particular that I disagree. My reason for this is that making litter-picking a punishment gives it a stigma that condemns it for the rest of a pupil’s life to be something undesirable, embarrassing and definitely uncool to do. And I bet that those pupils who have been made to litter-pick as a punishment take great delight afterwards in dropping more litter just to get their own back on authority.

Which is why I read Susan Elkin’s article in The Independent on February 4th with dismay. With the headline “Litter clearing and weeding for rule breakers? Finally, a half-decent idea from Michael Gove” and the sub-heading “Less impressive is the Education Secretary’s suggestion that we should bring back the writing of lines – a wholly un-educational exercise”, I wondered which planet Susan Elkin is on, especially as she comments later in the article “And for goodness sake don’t anyone even think of bringing back the writing of lines as Gove advocates. It tells children loudly and clearly that writing is a boring activity and to be avoided”. So it doesn’t matter, then, that children get to feel that litter-picking is boring and to be avoided ? I can’t say that I agree with that !

Who on earth, having once or more being made to pick up litter as a punishment, is ever going to feel inclined to repeat the experience later in life for the common good ?

A related point is the involvement of offenders on the Community Payback scheme (previously known as Community Service) in picking up litter. I also disagree with this unless they are doing it in conjunction with a local volunteer litter-picking group – which I see as a healthy way to help integrate offenders back into the community in a manner that doesn’t stigmatise the punishment they have been allotted.

To put the other side of the coin to Mr Gove, a friend of mine tells me that her interest in keeping the place free of litter started after it was considered a privilege at primary school to be selected to pick litter around the school grounds at break time – it was both fun and second nature to be proactive litter-pickers.

So, Mr Gove (and anyone else in government for that matter) – please move away from citing litter-picking as a punishment for young people. That way, I have no doubt that we will, in the long term, boost the numbers of willing volunteers who are more and more needed to help keep their neighbourhood not only litter-free but feeling safe too. And I suspect that they will be less willing to drop litter themselves too.

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