Secret Teacher: my school’s behaviour policy makes me feel powerless


Responsibility for punishment is put entirely on teachers – it’s exhausting and demoralising. We need supportive, centralised detention systems

I’m no stranger to challenging behaviour – before moving to my current school, in a rural area, I worked in two difficult inner-city schools. But their approaches to pupil behaviour have made all the difference to my ability to teach well; the system I’m now working under seems to be punishing the teachers rather than the students.

When I started at my new school in September, I believed it would be easy compared to my previous experiences. And on the face of it, the behaviour policyappeared similar to those I’ve worked with before: students are given three “chances” in a lesson, after which they can be removed from class and given a 30-minute detention at the end of the day. But problems come after this point.

Teachers must contact the pupils’ parents to inform them of the detention, be the ones to staff the detention and – the tricky bit – make sure students actually turn up. If a pupil fails to attend (which happens more often than not) they’re given a one-hour detention the next day, with the same teacher. If they miss it again, it’s up to the teacher to chase them down and make them come back the day after.

Given that I often teach five-period days, I spend my lunchtimes phoning parents, and can’t collect students at the end of the day – meaning that those who don’t turn up have their detentions rolled into the day after. This situation can carry on indefinitely, until I either have the chance to collect the student or ask a member of senior leadership to step in. Leadership involvement has invariably ended with a “conversation” and “drawing a line under it”. The student gets away without real punishment.

We’ve raised our concerns with leadership, but haven’t been taken seriously. Instead, we’re assured that we just need time to win our classes over. But even most of the long-standing staff – with a few exceptions – haven’t managed to get their classes under control. Instead they accept poor behaviour rather than go through the torturous process of enforcing high standards.

I know first-hand what a difference a good behaviour policy can make. My previous school was in special measures when I started, but improved rapidly to achieve a “good” Ofsted rating thanks to effective leadership, the robust behaviour system and the quality of the teachers. The process of giving a detention took a few clicks of a computer mouse. Students would be picked up at the end of the school day and taken to a centralised detention. If they refused to go they were put into a two-hour detention with the principal, or isolated from lessons until they had completed their detention. All of this would happen with no further action from the teacher.

Very often I’d still call parents, and would always have a conversation with the student, but this was not itself their punishment, and the punishment was not contingent on these things happening. Detentions were a greater inconvenience to the student than their teacher, and while disruptive individuals were kept in detention, we were able to plan lessons for the next day. It didn’t take long before the need to issue detentions became a rarity, and my focus could be on engagement and understanding – not standards of behaviour.

Centralised detention systems are not a new idea, and are used in many schools around the country. There are a lot of voices celebrating the good sense of this approach – Tom Bennett, for example, notes that it’s one of the most effective strategies on behaviour he’s seen.

But many schools persevere without such a system. Last year my partner was in a similar situation at a school rated “good”, but it was left up to him to chase down a lot of challenging behaviour. He made the decision to leave at the end of the year.

One free school head wrote earlier this year that, “teachers need to be more vocalin calling for their leadership teams to move towards a centralised detention system”. I agree. In my opinion, every teacher and school leader should be asking themselves a simple question: “Is our behaviour system punishing teachers or students?” If the answer is teachers, then there are plenty of examples out there of how we can bring about change.