A question about refusing Corporal Punishment in the UK in the 80s

I noticed from my reading on the subject that students who refused CP in the UK in the 70s were often suspended until they submitted or were expelled, but by the 80s students were generally given a 3 to 4-day suspension if they refused to be beaten. My question is, what was the reason for this change? Was it a general change in the attitudes toward corporal punishment that made individual schools change the policy just as many choose to abolish CP altogether, or was it a legal issue that after the European court rulings that the schools would be subject to litigation if they expelled or gave open-ended suspensions for refusal, while a specific suspension was legally defensible, or was there some sort of national guidance on the subject that lead to the change?


  I think I can safely say that there was no national guidance that led to change.  Until SCP in state schools was banned in 1986, decisions rested with the local education authorities.  European Court decisions did not overrule UK Law so any litigation would be a long shot.  I believe any change in suspension policy just reflected a general change of opinion towards SCP.


It certainly wasn’t a national-level policy implementation. Someone elsewhere said it was likely to be a decision made by LEAs. Partly, yes. I concur with that theory.  But I think, too, it was more the individual schools that were the main driver. Headteachers retire and new, younger heads come in with a remit or agenda that might have reflected the changing attitudes to SCP at that time during those decades. Decisions could have been made due to changes within the board of governors as well. Or another scenario might have been that any given LEA might have had concerns about one of its schools being over-reliant on SCP.

Here’s a ‘golden classic’ on the subject matter that a few of us might be familiar with:

It’s from STOPPs ‘Catalogue of Cruelty.’ (1984).

‘Tricia Watson (name changed), a Warwickshire schoolgirl then aged fifteen, spat at a sixth former. Her parents then received a letter to say that she would receive the tawse. When Mrs Watson complained, she was offered the option of temporary suspension. Tricia’s mock ‘O’ levels were approaching and she could not afford to miss any schooling, so she reluctantly agreed to receive two strokes of the tawse on her hands.’

This incident can also be found on pages 49 and 50 in Margaret Stone’s book, ‘The Corporal Punishment of Schoolgirls.’
I’d love more detail but I don’t have it. For example, was it Mrs Watson who persuaded her daughter, Tricia, to get it over with and take the two strokes, rather than risk the results of her mocks? Or did Tricia make the decision to be tawsed?  And I wonder who carried this punishment out?


You said above of the alleged tawsing of ‘Tricia Watson’:

I’d love more detail but I don’t have it. For example, was it Mrs Watson who persuaded her daughter, Tricia, to get it over with and take the two strokes, rather than risk the results of her mocks? Or did Tricia make the decision to be tawsed?  And I wonder who carried this punishment out?[

If the alleged tawsing featured in both ‘Catalogue of Cruelty’ from STOPP and ‘The Corporal Punishment of Schoolgirls’ then it probably never happened as both books are works of fiction.  That is not to say that essentially similar incidents did not occur, they probably did.  The quoted incident however is most unlikely to be anything other than an invention of one book subsequently plagiarised by the other.


I do disagree with you on your thoughts surrounding the ‘Tricia Watson’ incident. Regarding STOPP, it was very apparent what STOPP’s objectives were. How they went about achieving those objectives were at times questionable. But they were darn useful for getting facts, of that there is no question.

I have said this many times before that STOPP’s two publications that housed the regulations of CP from LEAs and that of individual schools that took the decision to respond to STOPP cannot be distorted. If the schools or LEAs had lied and had been proved to have lied then there would have been repercussions. What would an LEA or school have achieved by lying to STOPP? Conversely, if any given LEA or school had proved that STOPP had distorted submitted regulations then I think the organisation would have been wholly discredited, especially by teachers and heads that had supported their views. I doubt it would have received any further information. Therefore, I think what is published in the aforesaid publications is the facts. We all know that, in the main, albeit for  the court cases we all know so well, that if we look at girls, for example, they were either not subject to SCP or, if they were, it was a couple of strokes on the hand with a cane, or the slipper on the behind administered by female staff. If we look at those two books, then that it what is stated.

However, they did try to manipulate in other ways. For example, with the use of emotive phraseology and words such as, ‘degrading,’ ‘beatings’ and ‘thrashings.’ ‘purple marks.’ They tried to make two reasonable strokes of the cane on the hand as something as bad as a judicial birching.

Furthermore, and I shall pause here to say that I’m uncertain if this was indeed a STOPP anti-SCP promo, or it belonged to another anti- SCP group, but it relates to something that I saw on a local TV news programme one tea time during the 1980’s. (I have mentioned this here before and nobody had seen it).  This is an example of STOPP, or whoever, going for the lowest common denominator or going for the jugular! Sitting contently, watching the local news show, the issue of SCP was mentioned. With my eyes popping wide open, I saw a side-on view depicting a girl of about sixteen years old walking into a poorly lit room.  She had dark clothing on, but her skirt was brown corduroy, short and tight fit. A male teacher was in the room.’ Spluttering,’ I saw her walk briskly to a classroom desk and she bent right over it. I’m certain she had long mousy hair but at no time did I see her face. I saw what looked like a slipper. The film ended. I’m amazed nobody has ever picked this up. But do you all see what I mean? Rather than showing a film of a boy getting the cane on the hand, they show a senior age girl in a short skirt, bending over a desk to be slippereed by a male teacher!!!

Raising another point that maybe sits with what you, A.L, allude to, is that I have a newspaper cutting in a file somewhere from an angry headmaster who believed in ‘swishing the cane’ at his school. He had willingly submitted information to STOPP regarding caning policy. However, he was adamant that what STOPP published been exaggerated.  Tom Scott’s counter-argument was that it was total nonsense that his organisation would distort the facts.  From the other end of the spectrum,, it was said in another report that teachers opposed to SCP submitted exaggerated information about ‘beatings’ in the schools in which they taught.

A.L, we have discussed many times dishonesty and the distortion of the facts in many walks of life. Politicians in this country, for example?  Very fine exponents of the art, I’d say.

I don’t believe STOPP fabricated the Tricia Watson’ incident. Maybe the parents and the girl didn’t want their names disclosed. I guess, too, that’s why the name of the school was not stated. You have to remember, that STOPP had a regular publication called ‘STOPP News.’ In it were many similar snippets to the ‘Tricia Watson’ incident, of which I shall give examples anon. The magazine would house lots of information and updates. Why should they need to make up incidents? Some submitted names, others didn’t.
Regarding Margaret Stone’s. ‘The CP of Schoolgirls,’ I did buy a copy at the time. Yes, I enjoyed some of her ramblings. But the reality is that all the information she has gathered has been found in STOPP, newspapers and other publication and anybody here on this esteemed forum, who has a similar a collection, could have put that book together. Agreed?

Just some more snippets to finish with:

‘Hannah McGrath, a fifteen year old pupil at St John’s RC secondary school in Liverpool, was given two strokes on her hand in 1984 for fighting with another girl.’
STOPP News. April /May 1984
‘The mother of a girl at a school in the London Borough of Redbridge told STOPP:
“My thirteen year old daughter tells me she’s going to get the cane on Monday. Another girl insulted her, and my daughter got involved in a fight.”


A most interesting item   Not because of the assault on the unfortunate schoolmaster by the mother and her son whom the schoolmaster had caned for absenting himself from a Maths lesson.  The stupid, ignorant and violent are ever present regardless of date and 1903 was no exception.

No, the interest lies in the size of the class the schoolmaster was teaching when he was assaulted.  His class was eighty children, and they didn’t have teaching assistants in those days!  What, I wonder, would modern teachers make of that?  I have encountered young teachers who have refused to believe that the classes throughout my junior school days in the early 1950s were consistently over fifty pupils and that one unassisted teacher managed them so eighty would probably be totally beyond their comprehension.


why do you assume the mother who valiantly defended her child was either stupid or ignorant. i would say defending your child even at possible legal jeopardy  expresses the highest virtues of maternal care… as for violent who is to say if these individually were generally violent or only driven to extreme necessity by the cruel circumstances imposed upon them by this brute of a school teacher.


As you know I have high regard for your opinions.  I suspect that we shall have to agree to differ, but I will explain why I regard the mother as stupid and ignorant.  Note also that the court took the view that she was culpable, found her guilty and fined her for assault.

I think we must first consider the time, 1903.  In the UK at that time SCP was pretty universal.  Classes were large and order was maintained by classroom CP.  Quick, minimum disruption to other students, and often effective in achieving at least some of the desired effects.  Pretty much the same situation still subsisted during my primary education in the late 1940s and early 1950s, although classes were a bit smaller by then.

That doesn’t make SCP right today in the UK in a very different world, but we must consider the historical context.  Where parents disagreed with SCP (some did, but not many) the acceptable and reasonable recourse open to them was discussion with the school.  Assaulting the teacher does not constitute discussion, reasonable or otherwise.  Further allowing her son to assist in the assault was merely encouraging him in behaviour which could only result in further future punishment.  So sorry, but stupid and ignorant remains my verdict.

I said that the stupid and ignorant are always with us, and indeed they are.  I am acquainted with a case where long after SCP was abandoned in UK schools the Headmistress of a local primary school was saddled with a little pyromanic amoungst her pupils.  I say saddled, because it is not easy for a school to shed a disruptive pupil.  Despite frequent requests to his parents not to allow him access to them the boy frequently produced matches and lighters in school which fortunately were promptly confiscated.  Things came to a head when a teacher looked the wrong way for a little bit too long and the boy struck a match with the intention of setting fire to a waste-paper basket.  The teacher did the only thing possible, grabbed him and removed the match and the danger.

The parents were called, but instead of expressing horror and regret they stormed into the school threatening to assault the Headmistress if anyone had laid a finger on their son.  Fortunately she kept her head and instructed a member of staff to call the police, whereupon the parents beat an abusive retreat taking the son with them.  No action was taken, but happily for the Headmistress of my acquaintance the boy was moved to another school.  Now in my opinion those parents were of very much the same ilk as the mother in the 1903 case, stupid and ignorant!