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Director of Detentions – A Return to the Dark Ages?

Billy Casper, in the novel ‘A Kestrel for a Knave’, is described by his own mother as a ‘hopeless case’. The violence Billy experiences is truly shocking. He is slapped or punched by his subject teacher, his PE teacher, his mother, his brother, the other boys. It is the relentless physical assaults that serve as a contrast to the beautiful relationship he develops with his hawk, Kes. Billy is a fictional character, but it brought home to me how different school was for students in the 1960s and 1970s, and how thankfully, in school’s today physical violence has been eradicated. However, is there an increase in emotional cruelty to sanction students instead? Could this be what is contributing to the major increase in mental health issues in children in schools today? In my experience it was always REWARDS and Sanctions.  I believe that there should always be a stronger focus on how we can reward students for being ‘good’, rather than punishing them for being ‘bad’. Is the advertisement  for a ‘Director of Detentions’ a clear sign that we are regressing in our approach to engaging students?

Engaging Students

With an ever narrowing curriculum due to recent educational reforms, there is a far stronger focus on just the academic at the expense of art, sport and drama. Consequently, it is becoming increasingly difficult to engage students in their studies. Imposing detentions on them ‘to keep them in line’ because their instinct is to rebel against a system that is not fit for purpose is not the answer. Without rewards, either in, or at the end of school through the examination results, many youngsters are starting to question the purpose of being in school. This in turn leads to dissatisfaction. Punishing, rather than engaging them, is not the way forward – we are heading back to the bad old days of the 1960s and 1970s! We must harness young talent, and encourage the development of emotional intelligence. Administering ‘tough love’ is not the answer. It is NEVER acceptable to use emotional torture on our most vulnerable students.


A year 9 football was experiencing great success in the school cup and league. They were thrilled to be playing in the semi final of the cup​. Unfortunately, despite being the favourites to win, they lost 4-3. The students strongly believed that this was in the main because one of their friends, and a key player, was not allowed to play because of his behaviour in school. He then played in a friendly, which they won 12-3. A minor misdemeanour  in school, resulted in a ban for the next match, a match they needed to win to win the league. They lost 5-4. This particular band of students have been friends since they were three. They  have played football together since they were five years old. The one thing that is truly great in this boy’s life is his football. The teachers are fully aware of this. Therefore, to ‘force’ him to behave, they withdraw him from the one activity he truly loves, playing football. ‘Tough love?’

The Consequence of such a Sanction:

  • The team lost the chance of getting a medal. They would have made it to the final and even of they lost the final they would have got a losers’ medal. The whole team end up being punished
  • There were disappointed parents and grandparents – who take the time to support their children and end up having a very negative view of the school.
  • The individual student feels even more ashamed and distressed about facing his school friends – who are, on the whole, the school football team. – ​This could have resulted in his total isolation at school. Luckily for the boy, he has very loyal friends who feel the need to support and encourage him no matter what.
  • The school has lost the opportunity to have the  the prestige of winning a sporting cup
  • ​The team were frustrated because they lost the league game 5-4 in a game they all feel – including parents – that they would have won if the boy had played.​
  • ​They have lost the league they should have won. The whole team ends up being punished.​ 

Sanctioning students in such an emotionally cruel way can have longer lasting consequences. Such treatment can trigger more serious mental health issues.

Sanctions and Rewards

​I am not saying there should not be sanctions. Nevertheless, I do think there needs to be more thought with regard the consistency, the effect on other students and the impact on mental health. Ultimately, at a time where students and mental health has such a high profile, shouldn’t school staff consider a more positive way of encouraging engagement in school life for disaffected students? In my opinion choosing to remove them from the one thing they love about life to gain maximum emotional damage borders on inhumanity. Using ‘tough love’ as a badge of honour should have no place in a school in the 21st Century.

Engaging the Disaffected

A more productive way of supporting disaffected students is to find a way to engage and enjoy school. In this case, using playing on the school team as a way to praise and reward a disaffected student should be relatively straightforward. Inconsistency and negativity from teachers can result in multiple students being heavily sanctioned; and losing in the sport they love. With a positive and thoughtful approach from the teachers, the combination of spirit, loyalty and ​talent that shines through from these students, would have resulted in major success. A cup and league win for the students and the school. This would be a far more positive experience for the teacher too. They would feel rewarded and more positive about their role.


Unfortunately, is appears that it is increasingly common to take such an approach in schools. Mr Gradgrind would be particularly proud of the following job description for Director of Detentions at Michaela Community School in Brent, London. ‘They want “a sergeant major in the detention room” to bring order.’

Director of Detentions

This is an absolutely disgraceful way to treat any child in any context. It is a shameful display which shows no empathy or understanding of children. Ridiculing being kind, caring and understanding is stooping to a new low. It is a major concern that such emotional cruelty has the potential to become the norm in our schools.

 End Emotional Cruelty

​The violence shown towards Billy in ‘Kes’ is shocking and abhorrent. Nevertheless, it pales into insignificance in comparison to the emotional pain he felt was when the one thing he truly loved, the hawk, was destroyed by his brother. My ultimate point is that we may have removed physical violence from schools, but is replacing it with emotional cruelty any better?  We need to work towards eradicating such treatment of students if we are to truly succeed in solving the mental health issues that are all too prevalent in our schools today.

​http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-38796801 – Director of Detentions