Should people sentenced to community service punishment be required to wear uniforms? Or is that “stigmatising”? This PSHE secondary assembly explains the origin of the word “stigma”, and discusses the right and wrong ways to judge other people


A Leader and two Readers [and perhaps a volunteer bearing a “stigma” on their forehead: see below].

A conical dunce’s cap with the letter D on it.

A jacket or bib with the label “community service punishment” attached to it.

[These may be worn by volunteers or displayed by the teacher.]


Leader: [Show the Dunce’s Cap] Take a look at this. It’s a ’Dunce’s Cap’. A ’dunce’ is a derogatory name for a dull witted or ignorant person. Once upon a time, hats like this were given to schoolchildren to wear as punishment, in order to humiliate them for misbehaviour and supposed ‘stupidity’. Boys and girls who were thought to be lazy or not very clever would be made to wear the dunce’s cap. In popular culture, a Dunce’s Cap is typically made of paper and often marked with a ‘D’.

Reader 1: Charles Dickens mentions the dunce’s cap in his novel The Old Curiosity Shop, which was written over 150 years ago. He describes a school classroom, with a cane and a ruler hanging from a hook on the wall, and also a dunce’s cap, made of old newspapers, marked with large wax letters and sitting on its own special shelf. They were meant to look very scary. (1)

Leader: The cane and the ruler reminded pupils that they would be beaten if they misbehaved, and the dunce’s cap was kept ready to be placed on the head of someone who didn’t know the right answers.

But of course we don’t use the dunce’s cap in school nowadays. We think it’s cruel to punish children by making them look ridiculous. It isn’t be right to label people like that. We’ve even got special names for this sort of thing. They are… [Ask the assembly?].


The origin of these words goes back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The original “stigma” was a mark – like a tattoo – made on someone’s body. Nowadays a tattoo can be a sign of fashion, but in those days it was a mark of shame. If you were caught stealing you could even get the letters – “FUR” which means “ thief” – burnt onto your face with a red hot iron. This would be a STIGMA that you could never get rid of or be free from.

[This may be demonstrated by a volunteer with a mark or label on the forehead.]


Leader: Branding irons, cruel tattoos, dunce’s caps? They are all negative things from history. We don’t stigmatise nowadays – or do we?

What about ‘POST CODE STIGMA’?

Reader: Post code stigma is when an employer labels an applicant as unreliable or unsuitable after seeing their post code entered on their job application, because they believe that they live in a so-called “bad area”.

Leader : Then there is MENTAL ILLNESS STIGMA.

Reader: Whilst most people will promptly visit the doctor when they have physical health concerns, people with mental health problems often avoid going as they are afraid of being “stigmatised”, by being permanently branded as being unstable or a risk, due to their problems. As a result they don’t always ask for the help that they need.

[Any other stigmas? AIDS? Discussion may follow]

Leader: Let’s agree that all these stigmas are unfair. People are being condemned for things that they can’t help.

But now let’s consider serious and deliberate bad behaviour, such as crimes and bullying. If people do something wrong, isn’t it right to blame, name and shame them? Don’t they deserve a bit of “stigma”?

Reader 1: Nowadays, people who have broken the law are often given community punishment instead of going to prison. They are expected to do some practical and useful community work – perhaps in association with churches or other voluntary bodies.

Reader 2: But some of us think that criminals are getting off too easily and ought to be sent to prison.

Leader: That’s why Sir Ian Blair, who used to be head of the Metropolitan Police in London, has suggested that people who are sentenced to carry out community service should be made to wear uniforms so that the public know that they are being punished. Sir Ian thinks that “visible punishment” is the only way to convince people that criminal justice really works. So we’ve designed a “high visibility vest” which will draw attention to the people serving punishments after being convicted by the courts.

[Produce a jacket with a bib or label bearing the words


Place it alongside the dunce’s cap or get a volunteer to wear it.]

What do we think about this? If you are sentenced by the courts to do a certain number of days community service, should you also be made to wear something like this? How does it compare with the Dunce’s Cap? [Debate may follow]

Reader 1: That’s disgusting. It’s just like sticking a Dunce’s Cap on the head of a poor child.

Reader 2: I think a jacket like that would be a good idea. It would only be worn by people who have broken the law. They won’t have to wear a label saying “I’m a bad person”; “Sentenced to community punishment” is just a statement of fact.

Reader 1: But churches and charities would never accept the help of those serving community service sentences if it meant taking a person wearing one of those jackets.

Reader 2: How do you know? And anyway working with churches and charities is not the only community service.

Reader 1: Jackets like that would be counter-productive. In the old days when you got beaten in school, people used to boast about the number of whacks that they’d had. They thought it proved how tough they were. Anti-social behaviour orders are just the same. An ASBO may be meant as a stigma – but to some people it’s a crown of glory. Those jackets would be no different. Some crooks would be proud to wear them and show off their so-called “stigma”.

Reader 2: Who cares what the criminals think? They’ve stigmatised themselves already by committing crimes. That jacket is meant to reassure the public that people who don’t go to jail are still being punished.

Leader: And what about the Dunce’s Cap? Should we try those out in school again?

Reader 1: No. That’s different. Nobody is good at every subject and it’s wrong to pick people out and label them as dunces just because they are not very good at maths or English.

Reader 2: I agree. But visible jackets for people on community service orders are a very good idea.

[A vote may be taken]


Leader: It’s not easy to decide on the best way to deal with people who have broken the law. So far it seems that the government has no plans to make people doing community punishment wear jackets like this one.

But let’s all agree to dump the Dunce’s Cap. [Remove or discard it] It’s wrong to single out and stigmatise people because of things that they can’t help – or because they look different or talk differently or don’t like the things that we like.

[You may want to include this reference to the New Testament

In the New Testament, Jesus Christ tells us to be very careful about judging others – because, just as we judge them, we will eventually be judged ourselves.] (2)

Please listen to this prayer-poem – and join in if you wish.

Reader 2: Think hard before you blame,
Or name and shame!

Some people think it’s funTo shun the one whose face won’t fit.But Jesus Christ, whose words ring true,Tells us to quitThe nasty game of sneering,And put an end

To cruel jokes and jeering…

Good God, do help us not
To mock or stigmatise “the other lot.”

Dear Lord, I’m asking YOU-The lonely misfit’s friend –

Be my friend too.

(1) Ch 24, Charles Dickens The Old Curiosity Shop
(2) Matthew 7:1 The Sermon on the Mount (New International Version)

This e-bulletin issue was first published in January 2009

About the author: John Coutts has worked as secondary school principal in Nigeria, taught RE in Scotland, and has been involved in teaching and teacher training at the University of Greenwich. He has written and presented many scripts for the BBC and other broadcasters, and currently works as a freelance writer, poet and performer.