The Sergeant Major: A School Disciplinarian from Yesteryear, Today or Tomorrow?

Published
03 October 2019

There have been a number of recent media articles in relation to violence in schools including about escalating violence between students in schools where teachers, when looking to restrain students, have placed themselves and their schools in the media spotlight, regardless of their well-meaning intentions.

 

Advertising for a ‘Sergeant Major’

These concerns reminded me of a Daily Mail article from 2017. The head teacher of a secondary school in Wembley advertised for a ‘sergeant major’ to supervise the detention room to “bring order”: the role is “not suited to a would-be counsellor or to someone who wants to be every child’s best friend” the advertisement states. It reads: “This role is for someone who believes children need clear, firm discipline… This role is for someone who believes tough love is what children need to become better people and grow into responsible young adults.”

Thirty to forty years ago, it was not unheard of to have a similar role in some non-government Australian schools and in fact some schools still have a role with that title today. Sometimes referred to as the “school marshal” or similar, the role was specifically linked to behaviour management or ‘discipline’ procedures.

In 2017, we published a School Governance article in relation to increases in violent acts by students against teachers in schools. There have been a number of similar items published since that time. The question that this raises is: “should a school contemplate hiring a person “who believes tough love is what children need to become better people and grow into responsible young adults” whose sole role is to deal with behaviour management issues?”

Note there is no reference to the school in the Daily Mail article using corporal punishment in any manner and that School Governance is not making that assumption. With the exception of one state, corporal punishment is no longer permitted as a method of discipline in Australian schools. These days, most state and territories have legislation or registration requirements that outlaw the use of all forms of corporal punishment in schools.

 

Behaviour Management

Traditional punitive measures can, and some schools may argue should, be used depending on the circumstances and the culture of the school. Sanctions or consequences, and more importantly the absolute assurance that there will be consequences, is often a strong deterrent for inappropriate student behaviour in a school environment. The imposition of a sanction also ‘sends a message’ to the school community regarding the school’s position in relation to the particular type of unacceptable behaviour.

There is no doubt that education and pedagogical styles have changed remarkably over the last 30 odd years and, although some may wish to claim otherwise, so have student behaviour management styles and programs. I would argue that student behaviour can be managed for the better through a variety of strategies that encourage children to learn by being responsible and by being accountable for their actions. One example of a strategy that encourages ‘self-responsibility’ is restorative justice or restorative practices. Restorative practices are often used by schools to help children to make better choices regarding their behaviour.

I would also argue that behaviour management and changing student behaviour do not have to be carried out solely by punitive measures. Many schools adopt a range of strategies such as rewarding positive behaviours or the use of restorative practices to encourage students to modify their behaviour for the better. Nonetheless, I would also argue that a punitive sanction applied after a restorative practice intervention session could assist with the required behavioural change. In my experience, the restorative practice intervention was the basis for the change in the child’s behaviour, while the sanction sent a clear message to the child and the school that the particular behaviour was not condoned.

Nonetheless, anecdotal evidence shows that schools are questioning whether a punitive action on its own has a more lasting long-term effect (longer term behavioural change) than a restorative action. Remember, it is all about behavioural change for the better- better for the individual and better for the school. Children take risks and they learn from mistakes. If they do not learn from their mistakes, then maybe the school needs to look at how the mistakes are being dealt with - does the school have a behaviour management/discipline policy and procedures that are changing behaviour and improving school culture or is the school simply following a staid format that is no longer as effective as it was when it was first developed?

Regardless of the types of behaviour management/ disciplinary processes that they adopt, schools should encourage teachers (generally, it is only teachers who are authorised to discipline students) to exercise a range of disciplinary strategies to ensure that they maintain good order while students are in their care.

All disciplinary actions and/or sanctions made by teachers must fall within the scope of the school’s discipline or behaviour management policy, as agreed to by parents, and they should be meted out in a procedurally fair manner. Teachers need to allow for modifications and accommodations for students with disabilities/special needs. In addition, while teachers have the authority to ‘chastise’ students, they should avoid using discipline methods which involve ridicule and/or humiliation - this could amount to bullying and may also contravene the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or legislation regarding discrimination.

 

Questions to Consider

So, does your school agree with the appointment of a ‘sergeant major’? Questions that may be posed regarding the employment of a person in a position such as this include:

  • Does this simply handball the responsibility for maintaining good discipline and order in a classroom away from the class teacher? Could this reduce or enhance the teacher’s ability to maintain good order in the classroom?
  • Does the classroom teacher still have the perceived authority to discipline students while leaving the implementation of the sanction to a ‘sergeant major’?
  • If the ‘sergeant major’ is not a qualified teacher, do they have the necessary skills and attributes to be able to adequately care for children while they are in the detention room?
  • If the children continue to misbehave in the detention room, does the ‘sergeant major’ have the authority to apply another or even a more severe sanction?
  • Can the school afford to have another employee whose role is to solely supervise detention or sanction rooms? Can this person be deployed elsewhere during times when the detention rooms are not in use?
  • Does the employment of a person to deal with students in detention free up other teachers to attend to yard duty and other relevant out-of-class activities? Does it free up the deputy principal/s to deal with more severe or difficult discipline issues?
  • What does the employment of such a person say about your school culture?
  • Would your school’s parents support the employment of a person in this position as part of the behaviour management or discipline policy of the school?
  • If the overall student behaviour improves, what do you do with this employee if they have an on-going contract?

Within the Daily Mail article, British Educationalist Sir Bruce Liddington, when interviewed about his opinions regarding the hiring a of a sergeant major in this school said he had reservations about employing a detention chief. He stated:

The success of such a position depended on whether parents would support the school’s policy”… ”If the parents think this role is good then it stands some chance of working. If they constantly resist it, then it won’t... ”The important thing about pupil behaviour - and they are children and they do misbehave sometimes, that’s part of growing up and you have to accept that if you’re in an authority role - the vital thing is for them to learn from mistakes so they become good adults.

 

Would your school benefit from the appointment of a person such as this? Do you believe that schools should appoint ‘security’ or ‘discipline’ officers? Would it reflect positively within your school culture?

Craig D’cruz

With 37 years of educational experience, Craig D’cruz is the National Education Lead at CompliSpace. Craig provides direction on education matters including new products, program/module content and training. Previously Craig held the roles of Industrial Officer at the Association of Independent Schools of WA, he was the Principal of a K-12 non-government school, Deputy Principal of a systemic non-government school and he has had teaching and leadership experience in both the independent and Catholic school sectors. Craig currently sits on the board of a large non-government school and is a regular presenter on behalf of CompliSpace and other educational bodies on issues relating to school governance, school culture and leadership.