The Shame Game

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John Dabell

I trained as a primary school teacher 25 years ago, starting my career in London and then I taught in a range of schools in the Midlands. In between teaching jobs, I worked as an Ofsted inspector (no hate mail please!), national in-service provider, project...
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Is it ever acceptable to name and shame pupils?

A head teacher has recently been heavily criticised by parents after initiating a policy naming and shaming pupils. Students at Swindon Academy now have their names displayed on whiteboards during assemblies and are ranked in order of either positive or negative performance in attendance, attainment, progress and learning behaviours.

The principal, Ruth Robinson, defended the strategy as a way of encouraging improvement and fostering support for pupils saying it gives pupils an opportunity to “reflect” on their behaviour and out-perform their personal bests.

A similar system of rankings was criticised by parents at nearby Nova Hreod Academy in 2015 and labelled a ‘bullies charter’. The school, which like Swindon Academy is part of the United Learning Trust, stated the move had helped to improve performance yet critics slammed it for stigmatising and labelling children.

Shame On You

Some children have invariably been exposed to shame at home and so come to school and get another dose from their teachers. This is hardly character building is it? Shaming has a particularly negative effect on human development and schools have a responsibility to foster intellectual, emotional, and physical development not add to the damage children may already have suffered elsewhere. Many children will find school tough enough without an added layer of humiliation being added to them from what should be their safe haven and springboard for development.

When children see themselves are ‘under-performing’ or deficient in some way then and this is broadcast to the school, you are going to feed frustration, anger and contribute to a sense of failure and alienation. Peers will soon make a meal out of someone else’s shortcomings and make life a misery. Is the idea of self-reflection in a public arena such as assembly just a step too far?

Professor Stephen Pattison powerfully defines shame in his book Shame: Theory, Therapy and Theology by saying it is

“the feeling we have when we evaluate our actions, feelings, or behaviour, and conclude that we have done wrong. It encompasses the whole of ourselves; it generates a wish to hide, to disappear, or even die.”

Being humiliated isn’t going to produce pupils with twinkling eyes, brimming with enthusiasm but breed unhappiness and resentment. Shame solutions are destined to back-fire, set you up for a failed home-school relationship and impact negatively on student outcomes.

 Such A Shame

Telling the whole world something that should be a private conversation between a teacher, a student, and parents has proved hugely unpopular and controversial. Even if teachers do praise, inspire and motivate pupils, it’s very difficult to see how ‘programme data’ is analysed in the same way that a football manager reflects on a game with his players. Many argue that this strategy has no place in our profession. Schools aren’t football teams. Whilst shame is a private experience, shame has far more destructive power when it is given an audience as our weaknesses are exposed for all to see and in some cases, gloat over.

The real problem with naming and shaming is that the individual who is on the receiving end isn’t naturally going to cast a critical eye over their ‘performance’ positively but internalise failure as part of their identity.

Some might attempt to dress-up naming and shaming as ‘healthy shame’ where we all recognise that none of us is perfect and we all make mistakes and its how we bounce back and use our energy to get better and prove others wrong. Where on earth does this fit into the mental health agenda? Shame will not produce resilience but it will produce toxic emotions. Childhood should be protected.

Now Press Pause

I’m all for tough love and zero tolerance (the UK version not the US version) but not where shame is at the centre of the playground orchestrating its madness. Respect doesn’t come through shame because it is severe and disruptive to an individual’s mental and physical wellbeing. Be strict, be tough but do it with warmth, positivity and care.

But pause and consider what Swindon Academy are actually doing.

Are they really ‘naming and shaming’ in the way it has been reported? Aren’t they actually working in the best interests of pupils and making sure that pupils can achieve success? Are they victims of a misunderstood initiative? Their approach isn’t based on shame theory but competition and appears similar to what happens at the Michaela Community School in Wembley Park.

Now take a good look at Battle Hymn of The Tiger Teachers: The Michaela Way edited by Katharine Birbalsingh, and read in particular the chapter by Dani Quinn called ‘Competition is Crucial‘. At Michaela competition takes various forms such as daily rankings of online maths homework performance, merits and demerits displayed to the whole form, daily quizzes where results are shown to the whole class and publicly available rankings on times table performances. Dani Quinn points out that children benefit from knowing where they stand relative to their peers and it allows them to see how actions and choices lead to consequences.

All of these take place within a highly consistent and heavily-narrated culture that is driven by values and a firm belief that all pupils are capable of growth and improvement.

This isn’t about shame, its about driving growth but the school culture have to be right so that something well-meaning isn’t misinterpreted. A school that is a tight-ship with a close-knit community based on a culture of respect, hard work, kindness, gratitude and empathy can make competition work. As Dani says,

Furthermore, by taking control of the  narrative around setbacks, the teacher reduces the scope for nastiness outside the classroom, or snide whispering. By making clear why it has happened, there is little scope for cruel comments or speculation that someone is ‘just stupid’. Even without shared results, children rank each other and form opinions. By making the implicit explicit, and controlling the narrative, teachers can empower underachievers to deal with a nasty remark (and their private doubts). The response is already established: ‘I’m not stupid, I just didn’t work hard enough that time. If I worked harder, I’ll do well.’


I know what I would rather have. I’d rather have students who came to school feeling excited, on top of the world, supported, empowered, loved and respected than isolated, diminished and inferior. But how many schools actually name and shame in ‘real-life’?

The dunce cap and shame-based pedagogy isn’t part of our schools although that’s not to say there aren’t insensitive teachers out there because there are.

The real problem is that schools are named and shamed without an ‘under the bonnet’ understanding of what is actually going on and how the engine works.

When the media, politicians and parents control the narrative then effective ideas get misinterpreted, skewed and sometimes trashed and that’s the real shame because what we are actually seeing is schools trying their absolute best to inspire pride.

Teachers have to control the narrative.

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