Students and Detentions

March 1, 2009

I have explained before about how detentions can be badly organised to the point of being worthless. I was once in a position to rectify this within the department where I worked. I put a lot of time into increasing the rate of attendance at department detentions from about 50% to 90%.

It led to conversations like this with students:

“Sir, how can I have a detention today? I did it on Monday.”

“No, the detention you did on Monday was for not doing your homework. Today’s detention is for sulking and refusing to work in the lesson where you were given the detention for not doing the homework.”

“But I’ve done a detention.”

“Yes, I just said that.”

“So I don’t have to do it today?”

“Yes, you do.”

“But I’ve done it.”

“No, that was a different detention.”


“As I said, you have two detentions. One for homework. One for behaviour.”

“And I’ve got to do both of them?”


“That’s not fair”

Or even worse, for students who dared to get two detentions for the same thing:

“Sir, I’ve got a detention for not doing the homework but I did it last week.”

“That was a different detention.”

“But it says it’s for not doing the homework.”

“But I did the detention for not doing homework last week.”

“Yes, but you have two detentions for not doing homework.”

“Was there homework this week?”

“Not yet. Your detention is for not doing last week’s homework.”

“But I did that detention last week.”

“No, last week’s detention was for not doing the previous week’s homework.”

“There were two homeworks?”


“I don’t remember having two homeworks.”

“You did. They were both on worksheets that have been stapled into your book.”

“And I had to do both of them?”

“Yes. One last week, one the week before.”

“So, do I have to do the detention today?”

It became abundantly clear that where teachers had been left to organise their own detentions then they had struggled to follow up students who owed more than one detention. To the students it had long been established that once you owed one detention you couldn’t possibly be expected to do any more. The effect on discipline was noticeable, any child given a detention would behave badly for the rest of the lesson, and often lessons afterwards, simply because they thought they were immune to further punishment and wanted to object to the punishment they had already received. It made detentions for things like homework very inadvisable and any child who had a detention became a ticking timebomb, just waiting to explode into a further display of poor behaviour.

While I was at the Metropolitan School I was given an opportunity to research how students felt about detentions. As I have no doubt mentioned before the school operated a system of warnings. The first two warnings were written on the board and rubbed off at the end of the lesson. The third warning resulted in a detention, and the fourth resulted in the students being sent out of the classroom. My research showed that most students accepted that they deserved their first warning. Fewer students accepted that they deserved their second warning. No students at all ever accepted that they deserved their detention. Warnings were given on the same grounds whether they were first, second or third and so a third warning should have been no more controversial than a first. However, the fact was that despite a clear system that was meant to be in operation across the school students lacked the maturity to ever accept that they could have brought a detention on themselves.

What both of these examples illustrate is the extent to which students do not see punishments as something necessary or deserved, no matter how clear-cut the individual case is. My opinion is that this is because we have simply lost any meaningful concept of desert in our schools. After all, if it is normal for difficult children to be spoilt, sent on trips, and allowed to dominate classrooms, why would any child connect their own lapses in behaviour to a deserved punishment?


  1. “we have simply lost any meaningful concept of desert in our schools.”

    We have indeed. In one school I had a number of pupils who were unconcerned about the threat of class detentions, and happily escalated them up to the ‘whole school’ version.

    It was months before I found out that the (weak) headteacher was going through the detention list every week and deleting the names of those who would be difficult or would need escorting. There was a staff revolt on the issue and the detention system was handed to another teacher to run.

    The head of year 10 had the idea that all the troublesome boys had ‘suspected dyslexia’ or ‘suspected ADHD’ that excused them from any personal responsibility – disaster ensued, of course, with pupils running amok.

  2. The kids at our school are so badly behaved in detentions – swinging on chairs, refusing to do the set task, chatting – that it is a positive boon that only about six out of a usual forty-odd a week actually turn up. At half term, all outstanding detentions are wiped, ostensibly as providing the child with “a clean slate” but really because the system is otherwise completely unmanageable.

  3. Ah, the “But I ditten’ *doo* nuffin!” syndrome.

    I find that fewer and fewer pupils are able to understand the concept of “consequences” or to accept them when they’ve transgresssed. I have a very clear set of classroom expectations – pinned up on the outside of the door and in the room; but the one basic rule is “follow instructions first time.”

    I’ve lost count of the times I’ve had to remind pupils that “no interrupting” or “one person talks at a time” is an instruction. They seem to think that talking when asked not to doesn’t count – I’ll caution someone and the response is “Wot, miss? I wuz only talkin’!”

    And then there’s the bargaining they try. “I’ll be good from now on, miss, if you don’t give me that detention.”

    I point out that it doesn’t work like that, and they go into a sulk and behave in such a way that I generally have to have them removed from the lesson.

    So many pupils seem to have no idea that they have to take responsibility for their own actions.

    They never do anything wrong and are always incredibly hard-done-by.

  4. Was it ever thus? I don’t see half as much of this in “nice” schools as I do in rough ones, so suspect that it is to do with experience of discipline and sanctions at home. Yet there have always been rubbish parents with inconsistently applied rules who can be worn down by shouting and arguing. I believe that although the attitude may have existed when I was at shcool, its expression was limited by the certainty of physical pain.

  5. […] children to be spoilt, sent on trips, and allowed to dominate classrooms,”asks oldandrew in Students and Detentions, “why would any child connect their own lapses in behaviour to a deserved […]

  6. “My opinion is that this is because we have simply lost any meaningful concept of desert in our schools.” I’m sure there is a link between the randomness or undeservedness of rewards and the attitude to penalty. This is my third think about this, and I’m still no closer to a reasonable argument. So, it’s now on your to-do list, OA. (I promise to do some homework of my own.)

  7. I think one of the keys to detention is having it be an immediate consequence. At our school (disciplinary AEP), if a student acts out and earns detention, his parents are notified and he serves it that day. All of the teachers work together to reinforce with the student that he is responsible for his own behavior.

  8. I’ve been talking to my better half, a secondary school science teacher, this week. One thought that we developed was this:

    In large part, behavioural problems such as those bemoaned here are merely tolerated by the school system. They do not originate there – they originate in the home. Our suggested reason for this is the natural desire of parents, particularly working class parents, to improve the lot of their children.

    Go back a few decades. If you were a miner who lived in a council house, you had little. You aspired to more for your children. Thanks to free education to university level and free healthcare, they could look forward to a more successful, healthier life than you. Job done.

    Today, however, even those at the very bottom of the social scale live in material comfort that would have been literally unimaginable even within my lifetime. People living on benefit have double glazing, central heating, massive high definition TVs and video game consoles. At the same time, education past 18 is once again the preserve of the rich(ish) and is no longer the passport to a steady career it once was. How is a parent to improve the life of a child? They can’t offer them a better education. They can’t offer them better health care. They can’t offer them more material goods in the hope that they will be in any way appreciated. The only thing they can do is be less strict and authoritarian. It helps that doing this is easier, and allows one to perpetuate one’s own youth by being “friends” with one’s kids, instead of an authority figure to be respected and perhaps feared.

    I’m not excusing it, I’m not even saying I’m right, it’s just something that occurred to me and my partner as a possible explanation for the lack of boundaries it seems is endemic among kids today.

  9. I despair if you talked to a teacher and still concluded that education doesn’t result in material rewards.

    I also despair if you are under the impression that those in higher education are richer than they used to be.

    Have you not considered looking into the facts about these matters rather than just speculating?

  10. SonofRojBlake – I agree with much of what you say; of course good behaviour should begin at home, and I also think that the majority of the behaviour problems encountered in “ordinary” schools are because large numbers of children have never learned the meaning of the word “no” and how to deal with it.

    And in the more “challenging” school, such as those I work in, many pupils have no aspiration whatsoever, whether it be to higher education or a job. Sadly, they come from families that don’t see the value of education or a need to work for a living – (and who will happily spend 80 quid on a pair of Nikes but not 20 on a pair of school shoes).

    And actually, this idea that nothing has to be worked for is permeating through the rest of the school system, where pupils expect to be spoon-fed and aren’t able or don’t want to think for themsleves.

  11. “I despair if you talked to a teacher and still concluded that education doesn’t result in material rewards.”

    Perhaps you misunderstand. I LIVE with a teacher, and we are agreed that education per se does not result in improved material rewards.

    “I also despair if you are under the impression that those in higher education are richer than they used to be.”


    “many pupils have no aspiration whatsoever”

    Very true. One of my partner’s most common stress points is her need to convince bright, academically gifted children that yes, they’re capable of university and yes, they should go, in the teeth of scepticism, apathy and sometimes outright hostility from their parents. Lack of aspiration is something she sees, and we talk about, a LOT, even in a relatively “good” school. (A previous partner of mine, also a teacher, NEVER experienced this problem. But then, her pupil’s parents were paying several thousand pounds a term…)

    “pupils expect to be spoon-fed and aren’t able or don’t want to think for themselves”

    One of my best friends is a university lecturer in the department of medicine – teaching doctors. You would think, indeed you would hope, that his students would be about the brightest and the best – in just a few years they’ll be making life and death decisions every day. And yet, one of his most common gripes about them is precisely that – they expect to be spoon-fed. They expect him to tell them *exactly* what will be on the exams, in advance. And when he refuses, they are indignant. “How do you expect us to answer the questions if you don’t tell us what they’re going to be?”

    An additional problem is the new sense of entitlement these people come equipped with. They’ve had their self-esteem pumped up all their life, and now they’re paying for their course – they’re no longer students, they’re CUSTOMERS. And the customer is always right. They view their lecturers, at least at first, as something like shop assistants, and expect all their course materials to be provided. No longer do students sit quietly in lectures taking notes, I’m told. They turn up at their lecturer’s office, demanding printouts of the course notes for lectures they’ve missed.

    This evidence is of course entirely anecdotal, and in no way necessarily representative of the whole of higher education. But I say again – these are medical students. Tomorrow’s doctors, most of them. I’ve tried to stop him telling me what they’re like, because it scares me. (Scariest story: lecture on evolution of drug resistance. When asked, fully 20% of the students in the lecture volunteered the information that they do not believe in evolution. DOCTORS, one day. Scared?)

  12. This evidence is of course entirely anecdotal,

    Well, I’ve heard similar things from friends who work in FE.

    I want to pick up on what you said about self-esteem being pumped up. I remember the first time I had a set of homework to mark. I asked whether I should correct spelling and was told not to worry about it too much and to mark for “content”. My reply didn’t go down too well – “how can I mark for content if I can’t understand the content?”

    And then there are the pieces of “work” handed in that you know have been written on a piece of toilet paper on the bus on the way to school that morning, despite the fact that pupils were allotted two weeks in which to do it. I was going to hand work back unmarked, but was told that I couldn’t do that because “at least X has bothered to hand something in, which is more than some of them have.” I was told that of course I should award a low mark, but that I should write a comment such as “This work could have been improved if…”

    Needless to say, that time, I kept my suggested reply – “… if you had bothered to expend any time and effort on the project rather than just handing something in so you could avoid getting a detention.” – to myself.

    Which is a very roundabout way of saying that pumping up kids’ self-esteem and not allowing them to fail is NOT the answer, because then they think they can trot out any old tripe and it will “count”. Rather, we should be teaching them that effort will, in many cases, produce a good result, but that sometimes we fail – and then teach them how to deal with it. I’ve had kids rip pages out of exercise books or rip up pages with their assessment grade written on because they didn’t get the grade they wanted. Pointing out that they didn’t do sufficient work to get a higher grade falls on deaf ears. And if that’s what’s going on in secondary schools, it’s no wonder it’s happening in FE. And it’s not just here – a friend of mine is a lecturer in the US, and she tells me the same stories as friends here.

    *adopts John Laurie voice* “We’re doooooomed!

  13. Caz
    This sense of entitlement has been simmering on the back burners for a long time. I remember friends in the 60s acting as housemasters at a boarding school(they were theology students so they were a bit naive). Horror at students demanding they allow certain dubious things – on the grounds that
    “We’re paying you, so you do as we say.” Unfortunately, the people who were paying, the parents, started saying the same kind of thing.

    Just like all things, good and bad, these attitudes have permeated through all levels of society that couldn’t dream of affording a boarding school.
    Note, it’s been going on a lot longer in the US.

    Medical students? They’ve always been a bit exceptional. OH ran a course on ethics for them during the 90s. They had real problems. They were incredibly clever, hardworking swots, always had been, knew nothing except studying, revising and getting the right answer. Never had a life away from books and a desk. Didn’t understand any process that they couldn’t guarantee an A+ result. Allowing patients, patients! to have the say on risky procedures and their own life or death decisions. Anathema!
    I also think that parts of the East Asian attitude to study is affecting institutions that accept international students. Forget the respect for teachers and senior staff bit, take on the “repeat what you’ve read or been told without changing a word” part with gusto. Be genuinely amazed at the concept of plagiarism.

    …fully 20% of the students …. do not believe in evolution. DOCTORS, one day……
    I just don’t know any more. Apparently 50% of science teachers in USA don’t believe in evolution. That’s the science teachers!

  14. “I’m not sure what you think that link proves”

    OK, then I’ll spoonfeed you. It “proves” nothing. It supports my point that, as I said: “education past 18 is once again the preserve of the rich(ish)”

    You said: “I […] despair if you are under the impression that those in higher education are richer than they used to be.”

    In response I provided a link which shows that, for the children of poorer people,

    – “lack of money […] limited their choice of course and the length of time they […] stay in higher education”
    – “The fear of debt appeared to be a much greater deterrent to students staying in higher education than sums they had actually borrowed. Concern about debt was often compounded by lack of confidence about academic success and the chances of finding a sufficiently well-paid job.”

    To put it even more simply:

    20 years ago, I, child of a single working class family, went to a university for free and had my living expenses paid by the taxpayer. I was able to choose a long degree course, and not be concerned about the length of time it would take me to qualify.

    Today, the same course would cost several thousand pounds a year, and living expenses would have to be borrowed. Every additional year in education is more debt incurred, and less opportunity to have a full time job. This encourages students to drop out.

    To explain it in very simple terms:

    The huge cost of university education is not a problem for the rich.

    It is a problem for the poor.

  15. OK, then I’ll spoonfeed you. It “proves” nothing. It supports my point that, as I said: “education past 18 is once again the preserve of the rich(ish)”

    The problem is that it simply doesn’t show that. (Not surprisingly given that what you are claiming isn’t true.)

  16. I spotted this in the news this week and thought it might be relevant:


    According to the National Audit Office report in June 2008:

    “Young people living in deprived areas have experienced an increase in participation [i.e., attending university] of 4.5 percentage points since 1998 compared with an increase of 1.8 percentage points in the least deprived areas.”


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