A secondary school is trying to find a “sergeant major in the detention room” to impose order on otherwise unruly pupils. Michaela Community School in Brent, London, is looking for what it is calling a “detention director”.
The job description specifies that applicants should be able to dish out tough love. It offers a salary of up to £35,000 for someone “who believes children need clear, firm discipline” and understands that “tough love is what children need to become better people and grow into responsible young adults”.
Just in case potential applicants did not get the message, they are informed that the post of detention director is not suited “to a would-be counsellor or someone who wants to be every child’s best friend”.
It is a sign of the times that not only does a school feel the need to advertise for the post of a detention director, but also believes that it needs to underline the fact that such a person must sign up to an ethos that upholds the value of discipline in a school setting.
There are many reasons why schoolchildren’s behaviour has deteriorated in recent years. Almost imperceptibly, the term ‘discipline’ has acquired a negative connotation in British culture. Within the context of education and parenting practices, discipline and its enforcement often conveys the implication of an abuse of power. Numerous experts insist that discipline is repressive and results in dysfunctional and unhappy children.
Parents are invariably advised to negotiate with their children rather than punishing them. Parents who punish their children’s misbehaviour are made to feel the moral inferiors of those who rely on negotiation.
The cultural devaluation of discipline has been exported into the classroom to the point that teachers feel ill at ease about appearing as a ‘disciplinarian’. Consequently, many teachers readily acknowledge their inability to deal with relatively minor forms of disruptions, such as orchestrated coughing and kids fooling around.
The cumulative outcome of the estrangement of the institutions of socialisation and education from the value of structure and discipline is that the scope of the problem has changed.
Historically, the question of discipline was perceived as the problem associated with the maintenance of order in the classroom. That still remains a challenge. What has changed is that in recent times the issue of discipline is frequently perceived as a direct threat to teachers themselves.
Claims by teachers’ unions that their members have been teased, abused and even physically attacked highlight the insecure status of some members of the profession. Probably the most striking manifestation of the helplessness of some teachers is that some cases the exercising of authority over even infants has proved too challenging.
Consequently, we now live in a world where toddlers – thankfully still a relatively small number – are suspended from school for physical or verbal assault.
Discipline is a ‘difficult and often unpopular responsibility’
The fact that Michaela Community School has to specify that it expects applicants to take the need for discipline seriously indicates that this is not an attitude that it can take for granted. The appellation of a detention director may come across as bizarre, but the school’s search for someone who likes “order and discipline” is symptomatic of the difficulty that teachers have in exercising their authority in the classroom and effectively managing children’s behaviour.
In recent times, some schools have sought to compensate for the difficulty that teachers have in retaining control over the classroom by outsourcing responsibility for enforcing discipline to a specialist body. One teacher that I interviewed from the London borough of Hackney recalled the introduction of a Behaviour Improvement Programme in her school. During incidents of major disruption or when fights broke out, the teachers stood back and waited for the arrival of the Behaviour and Education Teams.
Unfortunately, the more classroom teachers were divested of their responsibility for enforcing discipline, the more likely that their authority would be undermined. Which is why I am not sure that the appointment of a detention director is necessarily such a good idea. An effective school requires that all members of staff behave in an authoritative manner and assume direct responsibility for the guidance and disciplining of pupils.
The moment that disciplining becomes a specialist function, it allows educators to opt out of this difficult and often unpopular responsibility. The job of ensuring that detention has the desirable effect is best done by their teachers.
Once school discipline is turned into a specialist role, it threatens to make the worse the problem that it is attempting to solve.