13th November 2009 at 00:00
Our school's default policy on bad behaviour seems to be detention, but I don't think that is always the solution. What is a good balance between different sanctions and rewards?

It is one of the favourite school mantras: "For every minute you waste of my time, I will waste a minute of yours." And so detentions get set, missed and set again. Those who turn up are usually the least deserving of them.

In this modern age, the traditional detention may seem a little dated, especially when evidence suggests that rewards and praise are more effective than punishments in turning around behaviour.

The 1989 Elton Report recommended a rewards-to-sanctions ratio of at least 5:1 - something echoed by the Steer Report on school behaviour in 2005. And last year, an Ofsted report suggested that rewards were a "powerful incentive" for pupils who struggle at school.

Reinforcing positive or improved behaviour with a little verbal encouragement may remove the need to set so many detentions. Other teachers choose to reward progress more tangibly by providing special treats, school trips or prizes.

However, it would be naive to think that rewards alone will eradicate bad behaviour. Most schools include detentions as part of their behaviour policy for repeat offenders. But how the detentions are conducted will usually dictate how successful they are.

"I have seen kids in detention with their feet up and chatting," says an anonymous secondary teacher from Kent. "To my mind that is worse than no detention at all."

An effective detention needs to act as a deterrent and be useful in some way, says Tom Bennett, The TES's resident behaviour expert ( and head of religious studies and philosophy at Raine's Foundation School in east London.

"I always make my pupils do work, preferably classwork they should have done or work they have missed," says Mr Bennett. "Better still, give them something that extends their knowledge or skills beyond the lesson."

If they fail to complete the work, keep setting sanctions until it is completed. Alternatively, you could get pupils to do chores around the school. They could make themselves useful by scraping chewing gum off the bottom of tables or picking up litter.

Meaningless detentions - getting pupils to perform futile tasks such as writing hundreds of lines or sitting silently in a hall - live up to their name. Most pupils will learn nothing from the experience.

If you think your school is relying too heavily on detentions, you may want to discuss alternatives with your senior management team. Bristol Brunel Academy has not scrapped detentions altogether, but it would rather work with the child to see if it can find longer-term solutions.

"The first principle we follow is: accept that pupils are young people who are developing emotionally, physically and mentally," says Armando Di-Finizio, principal. "They will make errors of judgment, make mistakes and do irrational things."

If a pupil has a problem with numeracy, help is provided, he adds. The same attitude is taken if there is a problem with time management or if a pupil has overstepped the mark. A straightforward detention is a missed opportunity, he says. Instead of a "meaningless and counter-productive" punishment, schools should take the time to discuss the issue with the pupil. A chat could provide insight into the pupil's behaviour and also allow them to see the implications of their actions. It should prevent them from making the same mistakes again.

Armed with this philosophy, Bristol Brunel has moved away from detentions (they are not even an option for older pupils), and towards a series of after-school workshops on anger management, antisocial behaviour and respect for the environment. Initially developed as an alternative to exclusions, they are now used to re-educate pupils who have committed even minor misdemeanors.


- Follow the school behaviour policy.

- Give parents 24 hours' written notice of an after-school detention so that they can make alternative transport and childcare plans.

- Consider praise instead of punishment.

- For minor offences, try a vocal reprimand, a letter home, removing the pupil from the lesson or withdrawing privileges.


- Set meaningless detentions. Instead, make sure they do something useful with the time.

Next week Wandering around.

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