Detentions: Part 2

January 6, 2008

It is somewhat debatable as to whether detentions have much effect. However, where they are ineffective it often has more to do with wider issues about the school.

Non-Attendance. This is one of the biggest problems with detentions. Bad schools have bad detention systems. Teachers often have no way of getting kids to turn up and no support when they don’t turn up. With a centralised system, detentions are often cancelled for arbitrary reasons or due to parental interference. It’s an every day event for a teacher to be told, on giving a detention, “I won’t be doing it”.

Students Who Don’t Care About Detentions. In all discussion of punishment (even when referring back to the days of corporal punishment) somebody will claim there are pupils who continue to misbehave regardless of how much they are punished. Every school I’ve ever worked in has had students who would get detentions every day. However, contrary to the claims that they have “got used to detentions so it isn’t a deterrent any more” very, very few of those students actually turn up and do those detentions. In tough schools there are large numbers of “outlaws” who owe thirty or more detentions and simply never do them. This comes down to SMT not doing their job, failing to exclude or isolate students who simply cannot behave in a learning environment. The number of students who actually attend detentions every day for a month is miniscule.

Lack of support from Management. It’s a fact of life in tough schools that teachers who set lots of detentions will be put under pressure to stop. Of course SMT never put it that bluntly, they never say “What are you doing enforcing school rules? Don’t you realise that we don’t care what kids are doing?” it’s usually far more patronising: “Have you tried other strategies for behaviour management?” or the quiet word with a line manager: “There seem to be a lot of detentions in your department”. Of course, SMT’s hostility to teachers setting detentions is mainly to do with the fact that it creates work for them, either in overseeing a centralised detention system, or dealing with referrals for students who refuse to attend, or who tell teachers who give them detentions to “Fuck off”. The best technique for dealing with managers who interfere with your detention-setting is to create extra work for them in response. Asking if they can observe your lessons, requesting to speak to them at length about the discipline policy (with your union rep present), offering to co-operate with anything they suggest but not actually changing what you are doing in the process, tend to work best. At the very least if you admit that you are in need of further help with classroom management you might get a couple of days off for a training course.

Lack of Time. In a lot of schools it would be physically impossible to give out the number of detentions indicated by the discipline policy. Even a smaller number aimed at enforcing a fairly minimal standard of good behaviour may still be impractical. The usual problems are teachers having to organise detentions themselves, lack of places in the school to hold the detentions (which won’t be repeatedly interrupted by other students), after-school meetings and problems with behaviour in detentions that make it difficult to have more than one student in detention at a time.

So with all these problems it can be difficult to see the point of setting detentions. But the pay-off is never with the insane kids, it’s never with your worst classes, it’s never with management. It’s with the troublesome, but not actually insane kids, the disruptive but not actually abusive classes, and it’s with the parents who actually want their children to learn and are willing to tell the school they want their child in your class because that’s where they will get to learn. There’s few things more satisfying in teaching than having a gang of kids back away from whatever act of destruction or intimidation they are engaged in when you get out your notebook, or having somebody else’s Class From Hell go silent when you have them for a cover, simply because even kids you don’t recognise know exactly where they stand with you.

(Oh and the one thing that is even more satisfying than having the above happen is when it happens in front of the member of SMT who told you your large number of detentions must show you are having trouble with behaviour management.)



  1. You make some good points above.
    However, I also think that this can be helpful to you:
    Go to: http://www.panix.com/~pro-ed/

    If you get this book and video: PREVENTING Classroom Discipline Problems, [it is in many libraries, so you don’t have to buy them] email me and I can refer you to the sections of the book and the video [that demonstrates the effective vs. the ineffective teacher] that can help you.

    If you cannot get them, email me anyway and I will try to help.
    Best regards,


    Howard Seeman, Ph.D.
    Professor Emeritus,
    City Univ. of New York
    20 River Court
    Suite 1404
    Jersey City, NJ 07310

    Email: Hokaja@aol.com
    FAX: (586) 279-0935

    Book, Training Video/CD:
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    The Educator’s Support Forum

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  2. […] Old Andrew across the pond examines the arguments against why detentions just don’t work. […]

  3. I usually use detention as a last resort and that is after I have parent support. If I have that, when the student states he won’t serve it and a parent walks him to my detention, word gets around that I’m a meanie and others avoid getting detention!

  4. I was regularly in detentions, and hated doing them, but the cause of them can be complex. It’s not that I didn’t care about receiving them but that I was deliberately choosing success outside the classroom:


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