Why (some) kids don’t mind detention.

Seriously, who in their right mind would want to be held back at lunchtime or after school and sit in silence for what must seem like an eternity?kes

Many teachers will know that detentions are often populated by the ‘usual suspects’, the kids who reliably flout the rules despite being fully aware of the consequences. Most of the residents of your after school detentions are probably boys and many of those could be reliably classified as working class under-achievers. So why do they keep coming back for more?

There is most likely a complex set of variables at play here, variables that have much to do with the sub-cultures in which young people find themselves. Social theorists such as Louis Althusser, Sam Bowles, Herbert Gintis and Jean Anyon would argue that schools exist in order to create an obedient workforce for a capitalist society, the problem is that schools also see their fair share of disobedient kids.

Paul Willis’s work in the 1970’s confirmed that schools don’t always produce an obedient workforce and that some pupils will always find a way to break the rules. Willis (1977) studied a group of working class ‘lads’ in a school on a working-class housing estate in Wolverhampton and found that these lads had developed an anti-school subculture that was opposed to the main aims of the school. They viewed education as having little value to them personally and just getting in the way of them having a ‘laff’. They didn’t see school as relevant to the manual labouring jobs for which they were destined and rejected the irrelevant rules and constraints that were placed on them.

While studies such as these can be viewed as questionable in terms of reliability and also in regards to their contemporary relevance, they can provide a useful starting point for discovering why some pupils are more likely to get into trouble than others. Subcultures are powerful things and formed because some groups feel marginalised by a system that appears to reject them.

Essentially, if individuals fail to accomplish the goals set by wider society, they form their own groups based on alternative structures, norms and values. We see this with street gangs who form an alternative hierarchy where the road to success is based on violence and criminal activity rather than achievement at school and compliance with socially approved forms of behaviour. Schools mimic wider society, so there is little to suggest that these processes don’t function at such micro-levels.

So why do some pupils always end up in detention for continually breaking the rules? The logical progression of the argument is that they have failed to achieve the objectives set for them by society generally and the school specifically. The meritocratic assumptions of education (whether you agree with them or not) would suggest that all children have the capacity to achieve the goals we have set for them. Unfortunately, there will always be some children who, for myriad of reasons, are unable to reach these standards. Failure leads, in some cases, to rejection of the goals, norms and values set by the school. The only alternative (or at least the most preferable) is the creation of an alternative set of rules shared by others in a similar situation. The rules of the school are turned on their heads; disobedience becomes valued and punishment a badge of honour.

So perhaps that child in your detention is thinking less about the time he is wasting, and more about the kudos he will receive?


Willis, P (1977) Learning to Labour: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs. Farnborough: Saxon House.


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