Do detentions work?



There has been much talk this weekend about detentions; much of it revolving around an advert from a well known free school who are looking for a “director of detentions”. One interesting strand from these debates has been this one started by Paul Garvey (@PaulGarvey4) who claimed – repeatedly – that detentions “do not work”. I was surprised to see him say this as his mantra, when discussing teaching methods, tends to be “No right way” and that “Different things work in different contexts”- I find much the same applies with behaviour management strategies.

His argument seems to boil down to this point:

This point was made by a few people. I think the problem is that the term “works” is undefined. Works to do what?

Here are some examples of where detentions – or the threat of detentions – has “worked”. I am aware that the plural of anecdote isn’t evidence but I have 14 years of anecdote to base my practice on. Here is what has worked for me.

When detentions work – Scene A

Picture the scene. A wet and windy day. Year 8 are coming to class from break. They are excited and a little raucous. I meet them at the door.

“Good morning. How are you? Come on in nice and quietly. Calm down a little. Your books are on the desk and there is a task for you to work on there on the board.”

They calm down as they come through the door, open their books and start the work. Two pupils though are still a little over excited. One shouts across to the other. Everyone is disturbed.

“Mary – you are stopping others from working. That isn’t fair. If you disrupt again that will be a C2”.

The disruption stops. Mary knows the consequence system. She knows that a C2 will be logged and she will have a conversation with her Head of Year. She knows that if she were to do it a third time she would have a detention. She doesn’t want a detention.

When detentions work – Scene B

A scene from my Year 11 class last year. We will call him Terry (because no one is called Terry anymore).

Terry was pretty switched off at the start of the year. He knew that he had a target of a D. I had explained that actually he was more than capable of getting a C and had shown him examples of his own work which proved it. He didn’t really care. I went over to Terry and saw that he hadn’t started the work. I checked he knew what he was doing. I told him I would be back in 2 minutes to see how he was getting on. I went back – he still hadn’t stated as he “couldn’t be bothered” – he had refused the instruction to start working. He was on a C2. I again gave him some help. I gave him a starter sentence. I told him I would be back in 2 minutes and what I expected to see. His head was down on the desk when I got back. He had a detention for refusing to work.

Terry’s parents were very disappointed with his attitude and confiscated his X-box. Terry worked very hard in every lesson after that. He ended up getting a B in Geography and now takes the subject with me at A level. I asked him this morning about that detention. He said “It made me see that work wasn’t optional. You weren’t going to let me get away with it. I had to do it.”.

When detentions work – Scene C

I am very lucky that I work in a school where poor behaviour is extremely unusual. Most pupils want to do well and have enough self-control to behave well at all times. A couple of years ago though I taught a boy we will call Nigel.

Nigel came into every lesson and was silly. He would shout out answers, make noises, walk around the room. He had regular meetings with his Head of Year who was trying hard to get to the bottom of this behaviour but on a lesson by lesson basis he was highly disruptive; no matter what we were learning or how we were learning it. Detentions did not stop this disruptive behaviour. It did though prevent it from spreading to others in his class, as they would see that there was a sanction for this behaviour. He might not care if he got a detention but others in his class didn’t want them.

When detentions DON’T work

Detentions rarely, if ever, deal with the root cause of poor behaviour. Paul is right when he points out that many of the same kids are in detention every night. Detentions do not “work” in that way. It isn’t what they are for. I may as well argue that ovens “don’t work” as they are useless at making toast. Detentions cannot be the only way that poor behaviour is dealt with.

I think it is disingenuous to say that detentions “do not work” in the same way it is to say that group work “does not work” or that direct instruction “does not work”. It works in some contexts for some people. It is one strategy to use among many. No more, but no less.




2 thoughts on “Do detentions work?

  1. Pingback: Blogs that tell you how to teach better – Elephant lessons

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