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Imagine – A School Without Sanctions. Or Rewards.

A guest blog from Rachel Tomlinson, headteacher of the award-winning Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire, on why her school is a sanction-free and reward-free zone. Controversially.

As many of you know, Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire is reward and sanction free.

The reasons for this are many and varied.

Interestingly there is always a lot of interest in the sanction-free element of our practice - we do not punish children – but the reward-free element seems to attract less attention.

Sign of the times maybe?

Actually, I think the reward-free nature of our practice has as much, if not more, impact as our sanction-free approach. It is now the element that I feel most strongly about.

Others seem to feel strongly about it too if Twitter is anything to go by.

Valuing Achievement

It is important, therefore to clarify that reward-free practice does not mean children go unvalued and unrecognised. Actually, it means the complete opposite. It means that we value an achievement for the effort it has taken at that stage in the process. It is personal recognition on a very individual level.

Why do we do it? Well, amidst the myriad of reasons for not extrinsically rewarding, the one that is keeping me awake right now is about equity.

I have seen so many posts in recent weeks where schools have taken their Celebration Assemblies online and are identifying Stars of the Week or putting children’s work in Halls of Fame or who are critiquing the quality of home learning with red, yellow or green stamps and more.

I completely understand wanting to praise and encourage children who are doing brilliant learning and are engaging with different activities. That’s something that doesn’t have less impact if you do it privately and specifically.

I understand the value of sharing it with others too. We all love a bit of positive feedback after all.

I understand too that here is a huge variation in how much capacity families have for home learning – on all sorts of levels. All families are grappling with this at the moment, whoever they are and whatever their context. This is all the more complex as the children in our classes have never been more diverse. We are not a massive institution but there are almost 400 different stories in our school alone.

Replicate that across the country and we can’t begin to visualise all the different situations and experiences. That said, I think it is worth highlighting a few though as it sheds light on why being reward-free is so important to us. 


Imagine you arrived in the country and started school two weeks before that school closed.  You don’t speak English. Your parents don’t speak English. They can’t help you access anything online so, even though you are really good at maths, you can’t log on to the system to complete any of the tasks.

Imagine that your mum and dad are both key workers and you are going to school every day. You can’t concentrate on your learning because you are worried about them getting ill – you’ve heard such a lot on TV. But you don’t want them to be worried about you so you don’t tell anyone and just try and smile and look OK. They get a bit cross when your teacher feeds back that you aren’t demonstrating what you are really capable of.

Imagine that you are a young carer for your mum and, now that school is shut, you’re looking after your two younger siblings too. You don’t have time to sit and do your own learning because you are trying so hard to make sure everyone else is safe and cared for.

Imagine that the only device in the house is your dad’s mobile phone. There are four children and it is really hard to get any time on it to access any home learning. Your dad also needs it for his work. You wish you could get on and do some learning but it is impossible.

Imagine your mum is really strict about getting home learning done even though you feel really sad about missing your friends. She isn’t interested in that though, as her main concern seems to be that she doesn’t want your teacher to think she’s not doing a good enough job. You get lots of virtual Star of the Week award but, you know what? You’d rather just have cosy afternoons every now and again watching films snuggled up with your mum or go for a walk.

Imagine that your world has been turned upside down because you love school! Normally, you love learning and are enthusiastic about it but at the moment you don’t have any energy to do any because you are missing your routine, your teacher and your friends so much. You feel even worse because your teacher keeps sending emails to your parents saying you haven’t accessed the learning and they are getting cross with you.

Imagine your aunt died last week and your dad can’t stop crying and getting angry because he couldn’t go to see her in the hospital before she passed away. You’re not allowed to go to her funeral. You miss her a lot and your cousins keep Facetiming you because they are sad and scared.

Imagine you have really engaged in learning this week and have written the best story you have ever produced. But someone else has got Star of the Week.

Imagine that your mum cries every day because she has so much of her own stuff to do as well as looking after the children, that she feels inadequate because you need her help to get into the Hall of Fame and she can’t give it.

Imagine you have done all the home learning as you always do and you get Star of the Week. You wish you hadn’t, though ,because now all your friends are calling you names on the PS4.

Imagine that you have your own room and a variety of devices that you can choose to complete your learning on. Your parents have loads of time and energy to support you.  When you have finished, it is great because you chat to your friends on whatever social media platform you choose. Life is ok – it’s a bit different from normal and sometimes you are a bit worried, but usually you are good. You got Star of the Week that first week so you know you probably won’t get it again but that is alright, you will still get everything done. You'll be ok.

Involving Children in Decision Making

When we made the decision about ten years ago as a school not to reward in this fashion, we involved the children in the discussions about it.

When we asked them what they felt about our Star of the Week Awards, they replied, ‘We know you like them!’, ‘When we get it we just know it’s because it’s our turn!’, ‘We know when we’re not going to get it, no matter how hard we work, because it isn’t our turn!’.

When we asked what they needed when they had done something they were proud of, they told us they just wanted someone whose opinion they valued to know about it and share that brilliant feeling, in the moment.

So that’s what we do. All day, every day. Online and offline. It’s personal. 

Every single member of our school community is navigating their very own personal boat in this very unusual and seemingly endless storm at the moment. Surely each and every one deserves celebrating and their individual achievements – whatever they might be – noticing.

Life isn’t a Pinterest board. It is far more gritty and complex and colourful and unpredictable and, let’s be honest, exciting than that!

We need to unite and not divide our communities right now.

And, actually, always. [ITL]

Rachel Tomlinson (@barrowfordhead) is the headteacher of Barrowford Primary School in Lancashire and is the embodiment of our philosophy that there is always another way.

The “hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade” are not fans.

Rachel Tomlinson

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