Detentions: Part 1December 16, 2007
Since most punishments used in schools were banned (or made impractical by the general anarchy) teachers have been left with two options: phone a student’s parents (and hope they punish the student) or set a detention.
The basic idea of a detention is that a student is confined to school for some set period of time. There are a number of ways in which detentions can vary:
After School versus Break Time
After school detentions require written notification to parents. Break or lunch time detentions simply involve keeping hold of a student at the end of a lesson. Which is more effective is likely to depend on the school (although this doesn’t stop many teachers from being convinced they know which of the two is best in all circumstances). After school detentions are most effective where:
- Pupils walk home in groups and fear they will be beaten up if they walk home alone.
- There are convenient places to hold the detentions (rather than a state of chaos at the end of the school day).
- Students have reason to turn up (i.e. there is an adequate follow up for non-attenders).
However, after school detentions have a downside. Schools often record them and then blame teachers for setting them (“if you are punishing children then you must have caused them to behave badly in your lesson”). Parents can be awkward about their children having to walk home late. If teachers have to hold them in their own classroom it becomes inconvenient to have many students in, whereas you can often hold entire classes in at break or lunchtime). After school detentions can be longer but that can also be a disadvantage, they are after all unpaid over-time for teachers (but this has to be balanced against losing some of break or lunch time). Also the worst students cannot be safely supervised after school so people don’t set them detentions.
In some schools a half-way house is often used. Students are told to turn up after school for five or ten minutes without a letter home. Teachers often (incorrectly) believe there is no requirement to inform parents about short detentions.
Punishment versus Reflection
There is a real question as to what students should do in detention. The best punishment would be to force the student to sit in silence doing nothing. However, this can be difficult, particularly if you have several students in detention (not to mention a crowd of their friends waiting in the doorway) and no real support if they refuse to comply. The next best thing is to give them an activity (usually a worksheet) which involves reflecting on why they got the detention. However, a lot of the time students are given work to do which is fine if the detention is for not working but in other cases seems to indicate that school work is a form of punishment and a bad thing to be avoided. I have also encountered members of SMT who have said things along the lines of “detentions are for relationship building” and actually expect teachers to be making friends with the students in detention by being nice to them, utterly removing the whole element of punishment. One member of SMT I knew even suggested detentions be renamed “Opportunities for further work and reflection”.
Centralised versus Teacher Organised Detentions
Good schools have known for decades that detentions should be centrally organised. Teachers should just record the incidents, but leave it to management to organise the detentions (possibly with staff attending on a rota). However, just because it is common sense it has taken years for this to reach more challenging schools. The trail blazer here was Ninestiles school in Birmingham who went from academic disaster to success by introducing a Behaviour For Learning system based on centralised detentions. Schools with poor behaviour often have heads who have a jealous hatred of Ninestiles and argue against centralised detentions. It is transparently obvious that this is because such a system creates a lot of work for SMT but it’s probably worth mentioning the arguments they use against centralised detentions.
As mentioned earlier, some members of SMT claim that detentions are for “relationship-building” not punishment. Apart from the clear moral failure involved in suggesting that you make friends with children who misbehave rather than punish them, this “relationship-building” is only plausible in the virtual world of SMT where it is possible to believe that no teacher will ever need to set more than a couple of detentions a week in order to enforce the school rules. The other objection is that teachers should be responsible for the amount of detentions they set. In effect: detentions should punish teachers rather than pupils. You must be at fault if you set more detentions than another teacher. This in itself makes a mockery of having school rules that say when detentions should be set. Moreover, it suggests that the amount of detentions set is unrelated to:
- How challenging your classes are.
- How long you have had at the school to establish your authority.
- How difficult/entertaining the subject you teach is (getting boys to speak French is more difficult than getting them to play football).
- Whether your subject is optional or compulsory.
- How much support you have with discipline.
- How high your expectations for behaviour and effort are.
- Whether you have been targeted for “terroring”.
If you want consistency in school, with all teachers enforcing the same rules without exception then a centralised detention system is a necessity. In reality the only problem with a centralised detention system is that you have to rely on SMT to run it.
NEXT TIME: Do Detentions Actually Work?