Detentions: Part 1

December 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?



  1. At my last school, the sanctions pyramid was clearly displayerd in every room. There was no discussion necessary: there’s the offence and next to it is the punishment. Three warnings and off you go to the sin bin plus 30 mins’ detention after school on Friday, run by SMT.

    It worked because the critical mass of tossers was not an unworkable proportion; because the HT had leverage in that the only alternative school was a hellhole and parents did actually care.

    We have exactly the same system at Hell High. It is perfectly possible, using the system as it is set out, to send three quarters of your class to the sin bin in any one lesson; indeed our NQT in his innocence thought the sanctions sytem was there to be followed and then found himself criticised for sending so many pupils out.

    This is clearly not practical. In effect, certain pupils rack up so many detentions that there aren’t enough days in the half-term to fit them in, so at the end of the half-term they are wiped. This is patently unfair to the occasional sinner who does turn up for detention, and is merely confirmation of the constant bastards’ belief that they are powerful and untouchable.

    There is nowhere else to go. We are already the dumping ground for the city’s excluded pupils. The parents invariably back up their children. We lose money if by some miracle an exclusion is upheld – and sexual assault, physical assault by pupils on teachers and a false allegation of physical assault have all failed to produce a permanent exclusion.

    Detention? Give me ten. I ain’t going.

  2. I agree with you bar one thing. OTOMH the “academic success” at Ninestiles was achieved in the same way as many other low achieving schools dragged their results up – by cheating i.e. using scams like GNVQs with “4 pass equivalents”

  3. The Ninestiles results still show pretty impressive improvement if you only look at the results including maths and English which are far more difficult to cheat.

    I might add that plenty of schools have gone the vocational route without getting anywhere near the results Ninestiles did.

  4. Oldandrew,

    I want to thank you for the work you put into this blog; I find it to be a constantly interesting source of thought on educational issues – and stress relieving humour. I have been reading your blog for the last year, and read almost all of your archive of posts.

    I am a Teacher in Australia, and a Year Level Coordinator (similar, I beleive, to UK schools’ HOY role, but divided across multiple teachers in a school of ~1800, we have 18 YLCs, 3 per year level, years 7-12). As a YLC, I am also an active teaching teacher, not only an administrator, and I teach in a “state school” which is what we call the government-run public schools.

    The school I teach in is in an upper-middle class and, as such, we have far less problems with discipline than you have described. This means that we have a different outlook on discipline – and a different experience with the school body. The vast majority of the behaviour that you describe would be immediate expulsion (exclusion) cases, and most would be referred to the Police. This environment has resulted in a very different discipline hierarchy than the one you describe – or that ninestiles employs.

    Discipline is primarily delivered by Teachers to their own classes/ students, and escalates from
    1) Warning
    2) Parental notification
    3) “internal” (teacher administered) Detention
    4) After-school (YLC administered) detention

    5) External suspension (temporary time away from school)
    6) Internal suspension (isolation from class, usually the students “follows” a YLC for a day, sitting in the back of their classes)
    7) and eventually, expulsion (withdrawal of permission to attend the school), but only after at least 10 days of suspension in one year.

    The reason I’ve described our method is to challenge one of your assumptions about teacher-run detentions. While I agree with the farcical context of “relationship-building” within a discipline consequence, I do disagree with your contention about “Good schools have known for decades that detentions should be centrally organised”. One of the reasons (in the environment that I teach) that we use teacher issued detentions is to keep the power in the teachers’ hands. If teachers do not run their own detentions, it seems that they are perceived as having no authority to do so. As you can see, we do have a informal form of centrally organised detentions for serious or repeat offenders, but it I feel that it helps for a teacher’s own authority with their classes to be able to issue and control their own detentions.

    My problem with the discipline system is higher up the chain, at the “suspension” level. A suspension is a set number of days that a student is not to attend school. The idea of this is to give the student time to reflect on their behaviour and express the school’s displeasure at their behaviour both to them and to their family. The problem with this is frequently (but not always), students who are in enough trouble to warrant suspension are frequently not happy in the educational environment, and thus do not experience either censure or reflection during a suspension, but merely have a holiday from school. This does not seem to send the message that the school (should) want to send.

    Anyway, enough rambling. I look forward to further posts from you.

  5. I take your point but I’m not sure why be able to run detentions is more of a mark of authority than setting them.

    My sweeping generalisation about good schools was based on my experience of meeting several ex-grammar school students who all seem to have experienced some form of centralised detention system many years ago, some are shocked to discover that their experience wasn’t universal.

    By the way, one of my friends at one of my previous schools had been a Year Co-ordinator in Australia. He was somewhat shocked to discover that in this country:

    a) Year heads are paid a huge amount
    b) Some (and I definitely do mean only some) of them apparently do nothing for the money

  6. Hi Andrew,

    Thank you for your response – I enjoy talking about education and I find your commentary to be very insightful.

    As to the issue of why authority is perceived by students in the running rather than the supervision of detentions, I have some (unresearched and unsupported) opinions.

    Once again, I will qualify my statements with the proviso that I work in a “good” school, and thus my perceptions may not be relevant to a “hell high”. I think that personally supervising detentions adds an aspect of personal value to the sanction; the teacher cares enough about the incident to spend their own time enforcing the sanction. This subtext of the detention adds some emphasis. I fully recognise that in some cases, the student is as thick as an entire lumber yard, and such effort is futile/ ineffective, however it does make a distinction between the type of teacher who will issue detentions without consideration (and thus without a “rehabilitation” aspect), and the type of teacher who actually wants the student to learn from the sanction.

    My experience has been somewhat shaped by prior schools in which I taught, where teachers were not allowed to apply any discipline other than issuing a “demerit”, which would accumulate until a predefined level was reached, at which time the Year Coordinator would apply the appropriate punishment. This was an utter disaster, as the punishment was totally detached from the event, and was frequently perceived by students almost random. Furhtermore, as you can imagine, it depended solely on the discretion of the coordinator as to the seriousness with which it was treated.

    I noticed that you did not respond to my about suspensions – do you experience similar ineffectiveness of this type of sanction at your end of the world?

    Finally, coordinators in Australia frequently receive a payment totally about 4% of the annual salary (and fewer lessons to teach to provide time to do all the administration (attendance tracking, cross-subject student academic performance monitoring, etc) and higher level disciplinary procedures. In state schools in Australia, you definitely do not do coordinating for the money. I would make more money by tutoring a single student for a single hour at the going rate than I do by being a coordinator. As to the workload, I frequently arrive at school at least an hour before pure-teaching staff, and usually leave an hour after them, and rarely have time to do out-of-class work during school hours. Most Australian Coordinators “burn-out” after 5-8 years, take a year or two break, and return to the position. Definitely not a cushy position, particularly as you are frequently dealing with problems that have been deemed to difficult by a teacher (who may be right, but it certainly ups the challenge level of the job!).


  7. Suspension used to be a bit of a non-punishment. However, recently the law has changed requiring students to be supervised by parents for the first 5 days and by the Local Authority afterwards.

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