Our school, a medium-sized secondary, must now be running at about 40,000 detentions a year. The assistant principal in charge of the system tells me that the flagship school in our MAT, slightly smaller than ours, has even more.
In our school, certainly, the escalation of detentions to the tens of thousands has made the place less orderly rather than more so. Yet mass-detention systems are common. When I discussed our system with the vice-principal previously responsible for running it (she's quit now), her basic objection to an alternative was that it would be risky and would at best take time to bed in. Then what if Ofsted arrived during the transition. No-one got fired for buying IBM, they used to say. There must be many school managers thinking: no-one gets Ofsted-censured for dishing out a few thousand more detentions.
Schools surely need to work to make themselves orderly and calm, and to help students to learn how to work cooperatively and respectfully with others. Detentions don't do that. Detentions do nothing to help students learn greater capacity to get along with others cooperatively and respectfully. Even if the "offence" is a really disruptive one, there is no direct and intelligible link between it and the consequence. Even when students do their detention promptly, and more so when (as often happens) they miss it and get it escalated, they are likely to have forgotten what the detention was a consequence of.
Many students see no justice in a detention as a consequence of a minor transgression which harmed no-one. They also see no way that sitting in detention makes them calmer or better behaved or more able to deal with whatever difficulty tips them into being disruptive in class (or doing the thing, in fact not disruptive, that got them the detention). A large number of students – on the whole, the students likely to cause frequent difficulties – have detentions almost all the time, as a way of life. Detentions become a consequence of going to school, not a consequence of specific actions. What most school students learn from most school discipline systems is (a) distrust and cynicism about established authorities; (b) some low cunning in circumventing established authorities. That is even more true of mass-detention systems. Distrust of established authority is a virtue, but there are better ways of teaching it and giving it a thoughtful and constructive character.
Some students find it hard to sit still and focus for an hour. Some are baffled by the school work they are assigned. Some come to school with issues which they want to vent, and have difficulty finding other ways of venting than disruptive behaviour. Some seek attention, and don’t see how to get it other than in disruptive and self-harming ways. In a mass-detentions system, there is no inbuilt call for real discussion between teacher and student to help the student increase their capacities and the teacher learn better how to deal with the student. An enormous amount of effort by teachers, and sometimes especially by those who might be our best resources for really helping students expand their capacities, is expended on monitoring detentions, chasing up non-attenders, etc.
It is almost impossible to make detention systems consistent, especially in systems where such a variety of student actions, often trivial, can attract detentions. In practice the student knows that her or his risk of getting a detention depends on many things other than what the student does. The best alternative I know (and have worked with, outside England) is a system originating in the USA (responsiblethinking.com: see also bit.ly/bill-r), which teaches students that the consequence of disrupting lessons is that they go to a special classroom to continue their work, and must talk with the teacher to find a way forward in order to return to regular classes with that particular teacher. It is explicitly non-punitive, and includes no detentions other than mini-detentions of 30 seconds or one minute to talk issues through.
There are surely others. To design them we must break our schools from the reign of mass detentions.
-A South London Teacher