Let’s end the outrage over Michaela’s sergeant major: pupils need detention, compassion needs boundaries

30th January 2017 at 16:31
The outrage over the appointment of a new detention manager at the controversial free school totally misses the point, writes the government’s behaviour tsar

When the stars run cold, and entropy has brought our proud galaxies low, one constant will remain: people will still row about Michaela Community School. I can hardly bring myself to even write it, so familiar and wearisome the arguments now are, so I’ll summarise: there’s a school in North London that’s really strict, and some people have aneurysms when they hear about it. The school advertised in the TES for a school detention director and people lost their collective guano over it.

A lot of the pearl-clutching was about the job title itself – those poor children! The brutes! But many, many schools have someone in charge of administering, monitoring, tracking, setting and attending detentions. They might be called behaviour assistants, or standards champions, or whatever. This is a perfectly normal thing. To have such a person doesn’t indicate that the school has a problem; it can indicate that it takes behaviour seriously and have a commitment to reducing staff workload. Especially if you’re a school where the detention trigger rests on a low, low bar – in this case, at the bottom of a coal mine.

Call a detention a detention

The controversy (such as it is) appears to have been manufactured by people who tremble when something is called exactly what it is. I’m offended by teachers being called learning catalysts or idea-whisperers or whatever fashionable cant is now being peddled by people with hashtags in their bios, but you rarely see social media blazing with indignation about that. I see students making papier mâché volcanoes in secondary schools; I see countless hours wasted to poor behaviour. Those things are real scandals. Having someone in charge of running detentions and calling it that? Not so much.

To anyone who say detentions are unnecessary, I envy the ease and geniality of your circumstances, because most teachers don’t enjoy such luxury. Most teachers must set detentions, sometimes frequently, and some teachers must do it all the time. I only ask these people that they do not allow their own fortune to diminish the straits that their colleagues in less convivial schools find themselves in. I speak to teachers in charming middle-class Brigadoons who claim that you never need to set a detention, or that the lessons are the thing to capture the hearts of all students. Tom Starkey, Twitter wit, once wrote "the next time someone says pupils misbehave because they aren’t engaged, kick them in the nuts and say it’s because they’re boring". Well, quite. I tip my hat to these lottery winners. The rest of us need it as strategy, as one arrow nestling in a quiver.

Nota bene: as one strategy among many. Critics often pretend that advocates view their efficacy as universal, that glum rows of silent, sad children are the answer to complex behavioural needs. Such straw men serve rhetoric better than reality. Many things can happen in detentions, from stony immobility, to salutary conversations with specialists that can turn a life around. I have no interest in such non-arguments. Detentions are only one possible response in our repertoire of responses, as a screwdriver is one tool in your belt.

Sometimes sanctions are needed

And let us not lie to ourselves. Any circumstance in which you need to detain a pupil (for a quick chat, for a sanction, for an enquiry) is a detention if they’d rather be somewhere else. Let us drop our faux-outrage at the thought. Sometimes pupils need a sanction.

And if you think detentions are oppressive, then again I celebrate your good fortune to have never experienced genuine oppression. Missing 20 minutes of CBeebies is not oppression. Allowing your schoolwork to suffer is oppression, albeit one that won’t surface for decades, but will surface continually thereafter by its lack.

There are two forms of detention: the academic and the pastoral. The academic is set for work missed, as a catch up, or work unfinished. It might also be a sanction, but not always. (It can be a safe place for students to do homework they couldn’t before, for example.)

Teach and preach

The second the pastoral, is where students have been set a sanction as a response to poor behaviour in some way. The reasons for the sanction can be numerous: it tries to serve as a deterrent, of course, against pupils acting in that way in the future – and for the individual pupil themselves. It is also a sanction: "you have chosen poorly so you must experience an unwanted consequence as a result". This mortifies some, although I wonder what they think makes people civil in society, the love of the community or the fear of being caught? Obviously a more textured answer is both. Which is why we don’t run society on an enormous voucher reward scheme for good behaviour. We reward, we encourage, we deter, we discourage, we listen, we teach, we preach and we believe in their ability to change, scaffolded by our skilled intervention.

To set a detention is to treat pupils with dignity. It says "your actions matter; what you do has consequences". It also conveys the sharp end of high expectations. If we do not follow up misbehaviour with a consequence, we teach children their actions have no consequences, and all that they will face in the future is a sad face and an oh dear. Only the kindest most empathic pupil will be swayed by this. For everyone else, there are detentions, and more besides. Caring about children’s wellbeing means building scaffolds for them: not prisons, but launch pads.

Compassion needs boundaries, and when it has them, anything is possible.

Tom Bennett was a teacher in the East End of London for 10 years. He is now the government’s behaviour tsar, and the director and founder of ResearchED, a grassroots, teacher-led project that aims to make teachers research-literate

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