Caned schoolgirl takes her case to Europe

By Lucy Hodges
Education Correspondent

A girl aged 16 who was beaten by her headmaster after being caught smoking outside school has complained to the European Commission of Human Rights that the punishment was degrading and therefore unlawful.

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She and her mother, represented by Mr Anthony Lester, QC, and Mr David Pannick, a barrister, are accusing the United Kingdom Government of five breaches of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Her case joins a long line of complaints lodged in Strasbourg which go to the heart of whether corporal punishment in British schools is allowable under the convention, signed by Britain in the 1950s.

The Government, which is fighting the action, is agonising over what to do about corporal punishment.

The United Kingdom is the only country in Europe to continue the practice in schools and was found by the European court to have broken the convention last February by refusing to respect the wishes of two sets of Scottish parents on the matter.

But the Scottish boys were not actually beaten, so the European judges did not rule on whether caning was degrading punishment under Article 3 of the convention. This time they will have to.

The girl, whose name is being withheld, was caned on the palm together with another school girl.

Her case is that the headmaster raised a bamboo cane, about 2ft 6in long, above his shoulder and brought it down very hard. She said this was so painful that it felt as though her hand had been chopped off.

The caning broke blood vessels in her palm and caused two large blood blisters, with the result that she could not use her hand for four days. Traces of the caning were still evident two months later, she alleges.

The girl had left the school building after a CSE examination in 1980 and was walking home, smoking cigarettes, with two friends, aged 16, when she was seen by the headmaster through his study window. A teacher was dispatched to fetch them and two girls were apprehended.

The girl’s lawyers are arguing that the punishment was degrading because she was beaten by a male teacher in front of another male teacher (present as a witness) in spite of her sex and the fact that she was of marriageable age.

Moreover, the caning took place in front of another pupil and the girl’s brother was able to see what was happening in the room. She was therefore humiliated in other people’s eyes as well as her own.

It is also argued that she was degraded by the relatively trivial nature of the offence and by the fact that no safeguards existed and there was no doctor present.

The tack of local education authority regulations contrasts with the rules in remand homes and the former approved schools.

As long ago as 1939 the Home Office totally prohibited the beating of girl juvenile offenders in remand homes. The old approved schools’ corporal punishment would be inflicted only by a woman, could not be used on girls over the age of 15 and was not done in the presence of other girls.

An interesting legal aspect of this case is that the lawyers are trying to show that corporal punishment in United Kingdom schools is an administrative practice meriting much more serious consideration by the European commission than a single violation would.

They are saying the United Kingdom is repeatedly breaking the convention and that the Government is officially tolerating such breaches.