Campaign opens to abolish the cane in schools

By Our Education Correspondent

The legal right of teachers to cane children is to be challenged in a new campaign to abolish beating in British schools.

Parents opposed to beating are to be asked by the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment, the two organizations mounting the campaign, to notify schools that they do not wish their children to be beaten.

A form to be sent to the local education authority states: “I wish to inform you that I do not delegate any power I may have to physically punish my child to the school authorities or to any individual teacher.

“I consider physical punishment to cause psychological damage and not to assist the education of children.”

The campaign is timed to coincide with the publication of a Penguin Special polemic against corporal punishment. The organizers are writing to all MPs and chairmen of education committees arguing their case.

Launching the book and the campaign, Mr Peter Newell, education officer of the council, said that the use of physical punishment was outlawed in most of Europe, east and west, and survived principally in Britain and the Irish Republic. He wanted national legislation to forbid beating instead of the present situation in which local authorities had discretion.


The Times, London, 28 September 1972

The high cost of cutting out the cane

By Stephen Jessel
Education Correspondent

The teacher unions agree on so little that when they speak with a single voice it is worth sitting up and taking notice. One of the few causes that unites them, higher pay apart, is the proposition that the use of corporal punishment in schools is a matter for teachers and not for local education authorities or central government. It is estimated, without much evidence, that between 80 and 90 per cent of teachers oppose the abolitionist case, a proportion reflected in the public as a whole.

This is the point of departure of A last resort?, a tract against corporal punishment in schools, acknowledged in a foreword to be “unrepentantly an abolitionist book”. It is the less useful for being so. Abolitionists will find in it instant confirmation of their beliefs, while retentionists and agnostics can complain that the case for retention is made perfunctorily and at second hand, that much of the evidence cited is of limited value and that the picture painted of the ideal abolitionist school begs certain questions.

One of the principal difficulties in is deciding where to draw the line. Many people not wholly convinced by the abolitionist case view with distaste the caning of infants, girls and the mentally and physically handicapped. Yet is it reasonable to absolve infants, but not juniors, juniors in junior schools but not in middle schools, children in middle schools deemed primary but not those deemed secondary, children in middle schools deemed secondary but not in secondary schools?

The abolitionist campaigners of the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment, on whose files the book is based, argue that caning is ineffective, leads only to a temporary suppression of bad behaviour, harms children living under stress, contributes to an atmosphere of violence and anxiety, corrupts good relationships, is rarely “a last resort” as is often claimed, acts as an incentive to “unsuitable personalities” to stay in teaching, and has been found to be unnecessary in most of the rest of the civilized world.

Little evidence is presented to support this general thesis. Indeed there is very little evidence around, either way. Reference is made to a 1952 survey, of limited value 20 years later. In this book the case that beating does not deter rests very largely on the punishment book of what is very obviously a bad school. Several case histories are cited; they prove that some teachers are sometimes thoughtless, wrong-headed or even downright vicious, but they do not prove very much beyond that. Abuse only necessitates abolition when it reaches a certain level, and the book fails to prove that this level has been reached.

There is much of value in this collection, notably an account by various heads of what happened in their schools after abolition, a study of the legal position, a survey of local authorities (with the exceptions of inner London, Edinburgh and Liverpool still wedded to beating at all levels). It draws overdue attention to the prevalence (particularly in boys’ secondary schools) of unofficial and illegal punishment — the clout or kick which is never recorded in the punishment book but is tacitly tolerated.

It cannot be said that the campaign associated with this book is being launched at a very favourable time. The National Association of Schoolmasters, whose gleeful attachment to beating (expressed at their conference in the booing and jeering of abolitionists) can sicken even a moderate retentionist, has had some success in portraying secondary schools as concrete jungles to be policed with the cane. The courts and public attitudes seem to be hardening.

The most disappointing feature of the collection is its decision not to confront the central question: why is it that the morale and self-confidence of tens of thousands of humane decent teachers is so low that they feel isolated and defenceless without the final sanction of the cane. Few teachers actually enjoy hitting children, although some undoubtedly do. It seems that a frontier mentality pervades our schools: in the showdown the teacher-sheriff has to have a better physical weapon than the outlaw.

It would interesting to ask the profession what price it would charge for a commitment to abolish all corporal punishment over a period of, say, five years. Many teachers, guaranteed proper psychological services for disruptive pupils, adequate ancillary help, decent welfare services, and, perhaps most important, the right to exclude persistently troublesome children, would not be sorry to give up the right to beat.

The trouble is that the taxpayer and ratepayer would then be confronted with a bill for many millions of pounds; the going rate for canes is about 12½p.

A last resort? Corporal punishment in schools. Ed. Peter Newell. Penguin Education Special 60p.