I could care less: detentions for pens

Pen (n) an instrument for writing or drawing with ink, typically consisting of a metal nib or ball, or a nylon tip, fitted into a metal or plastic holder.

Who knew so many tweets could be generated by such an inoffensive item?

It all began with my disagreement with this tweet:

140 characters were certainly not enough to explain my stance. So here are 4000 more.

High standards, high support

Have you noticed how no one uses the phrase “false dichotomy” anymore? Edu-twitter debate tropes have moved on since 2013.

Nonetheless, I’ve been breaking out the well-worn phrase a lot over the past couple of days. Retro.

Some common responses were:

“A conversation is better than a detention”

“Supporting the pupil with their organisation is better than a detention”

“Giving the pupil a pen is better than a detention”

“School-wide systems to provide equipment are better than detentions”

You can give detentions and still do all of the above. I know that – because that’s what we do at Michaela.

We have sincere conversations explaining our standards, upfront at the beginning of year 7 and constantly reiterated. Staff devote hours and hours to improving motivation and changing mindsets through one-on-one chats.

Struggling pupils have daily check-ins and check-outs from a City Year mentor to get them into good habits regarding attendance, punctuality, homework and equipment.

If a pupil turns up a lesson without a pen, we give them a damn pen and get on with learning.

Our school shop is open every morning before registration for pupils to restock on equipment they need.

We have high standards, but we also have high support.

Nudging, signalling

Fine, but can’t you just have the support without the detentions?


A detention is a slightly unpleasant half-hour experience. It’s enough to give pupils that nudge to check their equipment the night before. Pupils aren’t especially bad or lazy, but they are human. As a human being, we don’t enjoy unnecessary effort. A detention tips the balance in favour of sorting your pencil case out.

Detentions also signal that we say what we mean, and mean what we say. Our words (that it’s important to be prepared) are backed up with something that shows we really do prioritise it. Unless you have a completely consequence-free discipline system, what you sanction matters. It tells pupils what you really care about. It speaks far more loudly than words could.

The whys and wherefores

Still, why do we care about them bringing pens?

A school has to make a choice about what they provide and what the kids sort out. Calculators in maths are a classic example. In some schools, there are class sets. In others, the pupils bring their own. It would be absurd to sanction a pupil for not bringing a calculator in a system where they are provided. So sure, at Michaela we could all provide pens and avoid the whole detentions-for-equipment thing altogether.

Why don’t we?

Firstly, just doing what’s always done, I suppose. I’ve never known a secondary school where pens are provided for pupils. When we were setting up, it’s not something that was ever questioned.

Secondly, minimising faff. When pupils are moving about from classroom to classroom, making sure pens don’t go walkies, replacing them when they’re broken, and so on is more hassle than it’s worth.

Thirdly, pupils are more likely to look after and value something they own than something that’s a public good. Again, not because they’re bad, but because they’re human: the tragedy of the commons is not the preserve of inner city teens.

Fourthly, it sends a message about personal responsibility. We won’t sort everything out for them all the time.

Fifthly, it’s a gentle introduction to good habits of organisation that will prove most useful in life.

Care is a doing word

We show we care about our pupils through our actions. I’m giving a detention for a pen because I care. Maybe that’s a different choice from yours – but it’s still driven by wanting the very, very best for those I teach.

I give a detention because it doesn’t stop me from providing support. I give a detention because it encourages pupils to make the right choice. I give a detention because I think having a pen is important. I give a detention because I care.




4 thoughts on “I could care less: detentions for pens

  1. teachwell

    I think the idea of caring as being the preserve of those who do not give detentions needs to be challenged. After all, is it really caring to allow pupils to ingrain habits that are not helpful? Are those particular individuals going to ensure that the pupil as an adult constantly has employers, partners, children, friends, etc who will put up with those habits because they feel sorry for them?
    What effect does it have on a pupil psychologically if they are treated different and the behaviour we model is that there is always an excuse that can be pulled out of the bag and don’t worry about the consequences. Because as irrelevant as a pen might seem, it’s the principle.

    I’m currently doing work that involves having my own laptop and iPad – I can’t expect them to be provided and I do have to remember to pack and bring them each day. No one is going to pay me to sit and twiddle my thumbs for 5/6 hours a day as I forgot the equipment I needed. This is the same for many people in many jobs!!

    Finally, I feel bad allowing a pupil to develop habits that I know will decrease their ability to be independent and take responsibility for themselves. Go into most primary classes and children will want to have a ‘job’ of some sort. They complete and take pride in it – woe betide any teacher who has given the job of say giving out pencils who then does it themselves!!! In a small way it gives the children some responsibility and that’s all that you are doing when asking them to bring a pen in – in a small way getting them used to organising themselves so that they can build on it as an adult.

    The reason why I know where everything I need is the night before is due to the habit I formed at school. So it does help some of us.

  2. Sara J

    I completely agree with you. One of the schools I worked at provided pens as a policy if pupils didn’t have one. We got through hundreds paid for out of departmental budgets. Did it help? No. Few pupils ever bothered to bring a pen, some would be rude if no pen was available, and pens were regularly, deliberately broken as an excuse to do no work. Obviously, these were all symptoms of a school with much bigger behavioural issues, but letting the little things slide clearly didn’t help.

  3. Pingback: The people who’ve influenced me in 2015 | headguruteacher

  4. Pingback: Thoughts on ‘no excuses’ discipline | mathagogy

Go forth and opine