Discipline and Punish – Ephemera

Detention slip

This is the second in a series.  Having disposed of a few boxes of books, I am now tackling other boxes, which are disclosing various objets retrouvés.

When I started teaching, the school had a system for the administration of “after school detentions.”  To describe the system from the teacher’s point of view, you filled in a form (in duplicate from a printed notepad) like the one above.

You gave the boy one copy, and put the other into a box for the relevant day of the week. This meant that, instead of detaining the boy yourself or asking him to come and see you at some time after class (when he may or may not turn up), the boy was required to present himself at the appointed time and classroom where he was “detained” for an hour (nominally that is: it usually lasted a little less than that) and do the designated “work” (a version of the classical “imposition”) which he then handed in and which was duly returned to you.

If the boy did not show for the detention, he ran the risk of being given a “Friday detention” which lasted for two hours rather than one. At one stage, these detentions had been held on Saturdays, which was a much more onerous punishment).

A record was also kept of detentions given, as well as a stamp in the boy’s “home lesson diary” (which boys were required to have signed by a parent every week and present for inspection by their tutors), and this information also went to the boy’s “housemaster” (the name originates from boarding houses in English public schools) and the number of detentions received also appeared on his school report.

The school ran on forms. Every lesson we also had to mark the roll and fill out a form showing who was absent (called an “absentee slip”) and hang it on a little hook behind the door. About 5 or 10 minutes into the lesson, these slips were collected by boys and collated and duly checked off against the school’s list of notified absentees (if a boy was to be absent, a parent had to either notify the school in advance and seek leave for the boy or, if he was sick, ring up on the first morning and write an “absentee note” for the boy to bring to school when he recovered).

To be an absentee boy was a coveted role, a bit like being a trusty in a prison, since it entailed the vital privilege of running around the school out of class for 10 -15 minutes (it could always be stretched out) at the beginning of each lesson. This job was assigned on a rotating basis, but almost invariably the boys were in the academically lower grades of year 10.

In my own chaotic classroom, I was too often brandishing the detention pad threateningly, though I rather undermined my credibility by forgetting to put the slip in, so that boys were merely put to the trouble of turning up, or on other occasions simply took the chance. Things could get a bit confused: there was the time when a boy (a bit cheekily) stopped me in my tracks by asking “Are you threatening me with an absentee slip, Sir?”

There were two further problems with the system.

First, hardened offenders would be booked up for weeks in advance. You weren’t allowed to give them a detention on an afternoon when they had other school commitments, so there would be the invidious position of negotiating with the supposed punishee for a spot in his already crowded diary.

Secondly, the detentions themselves, presided over by a teacher with a well-developed gallows style of humour, gradually acquired a kind of cult following, particularly amongst the regulars whom you would see lined up outside the room afternoon after afternoon. This was associated with a kind of inflation of dishonours which was robbing the punishment of its power to strike fear into students and hence its punitive signification. In a kind of feed back loop, more and more detentions were being given, to less and less effect. One classroom was sometimes not enough to accommodate all the miscreants.

In a radical move, after school detentions were abolished. They were replaced by a system of “referrals” to housemasters, who were supposed to admonish the students and monitor their disciplinary infractions across the board.

Overall this change did not lead to any “law and order crisis” in the school, although perhaps there was a risk that some housemasters (yes, they were all men) were softer than others. I often think that there is lesson here for the criminal justice system and its own inflation of imprisonment terms and numbers: punitive symbolism and proportionality could be preserved by simply reducing all sentences by an across the board percentage. Hard cases could still be dealt with on an ad hoc basis.

Of course there were forms for this as well. It is an ancient wheeze to get hold of some official form and fill it out satirically. This is one example I found at some stage and kept. At least I find it funny.

Note to housemaster

2 Responses to “Discipline and Punish – Ephemera”

  1. Marty Weil Says:

    This is terrific stuff. It could be a whole new genre of ephemera collecting. Certainly one I hadn’t thought of or covered before on in my research. Thanksf for featuring it…

  2. Jobs 4 « Stumbling on melons Says:

    […] have touched on my time in this job before.  This is a holding post for the sake of the sequence: even now, almost 20 years after, my […]

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