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Detention: is it a deterrent or a social club?

Simon Pearse believes detention has lost its punitive edge and is failing to change students’ behaviour, but it could yet have a more positive effect if it is no longer seen by staff and pupils as just a holding pen

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Simon Pearse believes detention has lost its punitive edge and is failing to change students’ behaviour, but it could yet have a more positive effect if it is no longer seen by staff and pupils as just a holding pen

The student was extremely upset. He had forgotten his school planner and, as per school policy, he had been issued with a yellow slip. This yellow slip was his non-negotiable invite to an after-school detention.

Great, you might think – he realises the consequences of his actions.


His upset was caused not by the detention, but by the fact that this detention directly clashed with another one. In fact, on further questioning, it transpired that the first available slot he had for a detention was midway through the following week.

He was distressed because he was struggling to work out the logistics of being everywhere he was supposed to be, keeping all the teachers happy.

Confused, I asked him why he simply did not try to behave and thus avoid the problem.

“It’s just the part of the school day now where I get to complete my homework,” he responded.

The detentions were no longer a deterrent.

As part of the school leadership team, this was not what we were expecting. We thought our approach had been working; we had even considered a Saturday-morning session to manage the overflow.

A zero-tolerance approach to all aspects of behaviour – including punctuality, the wearing of correct uniform and the bringing of the right equipment to class – was at the heart of our drive to improve standards. But suddenly it seemed that this approach might not be working.

The more I thought about it, the more I saw the symptoms of the problem. I noticed the growing overreliance on detention in primary and secondary schools. I realised the hideously complicated nature of multiple levels of leadership, each having bespoke detention times, durations, formats and days. I witnessed how students often now saw detention as less of a deterrent and more of a social occasion.

Screams of delight

Here’s an example that sums up the latter problem. I visited a secondary school where a large group of students gathered around a doorway in which hung a number of A3 documents, each with a list of students who were due in for detention that afternoon. Students excitedly compared lists and some screamed with delight after finding out that they were due to attend the same detention.

Upon following one of these students as they skipped down the corridor to one of the many detention rooms, it became clear that during the session, no opportunity to discuss or reflect on the reason why they were in detention was given.

Staff members were on a rota to facilitate the detentions and they used the time to mark their books, further removing any opportunity for the member of staff to undertake any form of restorative work.

The detention was purely meant to be an irritant to the student – a way to waste their time in the hope of discouraging them from a repeat offence. As soon as the students decided that time wasted was simply another part of the school day to be endured, it was no longer an effective sanction. Make the detention a Saturday, and if you change nothing about what happens on that detention, you get the same result.

So, should we scrap detention? No, but what we must do is strive for them to be more than just a holding pen.

There is no common approach to the use of detentions, no set guidelines or reporting requirements. As such, schools are given free rein to develop their own systems. I took it upon myself to look at schools in which detention seemed to result in real behavioural changes to see if there were any common elements that we should all be incorporating.

What I discovered, having reviewed a number of detention systems, is that the most effective:


•  Are clear and simple with no overcomplicated tiered routes of format, duration or staff facilitator.

•  Ensure the onus is upon the teacher setting the detention to facilitate the detention.

•  Ensure parents are involved in the system and, where possible, collect the student from the detention in order to provide dialogue between the teacher and parent.

•  Use the time for the teacher to unpick the incident with the student and look at how it could be avoided in the future.

•  Analyse the number of detentions that are taking place at teacher, year group, faculty and SLT level, to assess where additional behaviour-management support may be needed.


Additionally, a detention system that allows staff to develop bespoke formats to suit the particular needs of the student increases the likelihood that the detention will have the intended effect.

I have seen schools in which social stories have been used with students who have been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder, to support their reflection on their behaviour. I have also seen approaches in which students in detention have undertaken tasks with the site teams to develop the school site. I am not referring to archaic activities such as litter picking, but positive activities where a sense of personal pride is developed and new skills learned. Such approaches are meaningful and have an underlying purpose.

I guess the most controversial among these suggestions will be that a teacher facilitates their own detentions. While I am aware that, as teachers, we have any number of pressures and deadlines to work under and work to, I am certain that the class teacher who dealt with the initial incident and sanctioned the detention must be the teacher who is then in charge of it.

Adding meaning

Without this personal approach, there is a tendency for staff to use the detention as the default method of sanctioning for poor classroom behaviour. In addition, the sanction becomes faceless and ultimately meaningless: often the student sat in the detention doesn’t link the detention with the incident, classroom and teacher. And finally, this would better facilitate reflection and discussion about the behaviour.

This is all, of course, based on the assumption that a school wishes to prioritise the use of detention over more proactive and arguably more worthwhile responses to poor behaviour, such as reflective conversations conducted immediately after a lesson or engagement with parents and carers.

But if detentions must happen, a more personalised approach – with individual staff taking charge of facilitating their detention and ensuring that reflection and any needed reparation takes place – will increase the likelihood of long-term change. That’s what the whole point of a detention is, right?

As a school, we reflected long and hard about our approach to detention. We decided that we needed to put the onus upon teaching staff to facilitate their own detentions. While of course there were a few concerns raised regarding additional workload, most staff also saw the benefit in being able to administer the detentions quickly without jumping through any number of hoops. It was made clear to them that the focus during the detention must be on positive engagement and a reflection upon the reason for the detention. Thankfully, so far, it seems to have worked.

Simon Pearse is academic coach (behaviour) for Greenwood Academies Trust


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