For whom the belt told

By Rosie Free

What do MSP Rhona Brankin, Glasgow’s Poet Laureate Edwin Morgan and the comedian Tony Roper have in common? Answer: they were all belted at school.

To this list add Bill Paterson, George Wylie, Jim Telfer, Alex McLeish and numerous others admitting to this fate when interviewed for The Scotsman’s “My Schooldays” feature.

Even the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was not immune. It is reported that Blair’s house master at Fettes, Bob Roberts, gave him “six of the best” at the age of 17 for persistently flouting rules.

In fact, ask anyone who went to a Scottish school prior to the mid-1980s, and the chances are they will be able to describe in great detail a particularly sadistic teacher who was keen on wielding the dreaded tawse, and delight in boasting about the number of times they were belted and the spurious reasons for this brutal form of punishment.

But with the Scottish Executive forced to reconvene its task group on discipline earlier this year, the pros and cons of corporal punishment are again being debated. Feedback to ministers suggests that with constant disruption to classes, teachers feel undue stress and in some schools even children do not feel safe, while the latest Scottish Executive figures show the number of reported incidents of violence and antisocial behaviour rose from 1,898 in 1998-99 to 5,412 in 2001-02. Almost half of these incidents involved physical violence, a quarter were physical and verbal abuse cases and a third involved verbal abuse only.

Despite these depressing statistics, few people today would advocate a return to use of corporal punishment in schools.

Colin Mackay, Edinburgh secretary of teachers’ union the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS), was working at Broughton High School when the then Lothian Region banned corporal punishment in its schools 21 years ago.

“I don’t think any teacher regrets its passing although we sometimes think ‘if only’,” he says.

However, he adds: “I feel very strongly that not enough work was done at the time on appropriate alternatives. There was a political force to get rid of the tawse and that was it.”

As a result, he says, many teachers were left wondering how to deal with discipline problems. This was especially true for those who completed their training 35 years ago, at a time when a tutor’s advice on disciplining kids was to give them a “claw hammer job” – in other words, belt them so far into the ground a claw hammer would be needed to get them back out. As a young teacher starting out in 1971, Mackay remembers that in addition to being fitted out with a gown, he was given a belt. The belt – one of the infamous Lochgelly brand initially produced by Fife coachbuilder Robert Philip, and later his employee George Dick – was passed on to him by his father, also a teacher.

Now these 28 or 30-inch-long pieces of leather, sporting either two or three tails and of varying weights, are collectors’ items, in some cases fetching three or four figure sums.

When he started teaching in Glasgow, modern studies teacher and Scotsman columnist Hugh Reilly had to resort to borrowing a belt to inflict the dreaded punishment.

“I belted five people and I could probably still name them,” he says. “It was a terrible thing. There was a terrible atmosphere in the class. You were hated by the whole class for the next three or four weeks and the person you belted hated you for the rest of their life.

“It was quite a tough call. Belting people was a thing that was done. You were looked upon as being wimpish if you did not do it.”

For a novice belter, there was the risk of losing face in front of a class full of children. Many teachers hit their own leg instead of the person they were trying to belt on the first attempt.

Although you would have to have a particularly sadistic nature to practise belting children, there were some sadists out there – teachers who would practise on a piece of chalk, placing the chalk on a desk and using the belt to break it in half. One teacher was known to smash the chalk to pieces in front of the children, before threatening: “This is what would happen to you.”

While most teachers admit to using the belt only on a handful of occasions, a report by the Scottish Council for Research in Education (Pupils’ Attitudes to School Rules and Punishments, 1977) found it was being used frequently throughout the 1960s and 1970s, with 84 per cent of boys and 57 per cent of girls at secondary school claiming to have been belted at primary school. Of these, 34 per cent of boys and 13 per cent of girls said they had been belted quite often. In a separate study by the EIS, 36 per cent of 12 to 15-year-old boys were belted at least once in ten school days and 21 per cent of these were strapped three or more times in the same period. A former pupil of St John’s primary school in Portobello claims he was belted most days for not doing his homework and for minor misdemeanours. Although he admits choosing to be belted over doing his homework, he says his blood still runs cold when he sees one of his former teachers.

Pupils would often try to avoid the belt by moving their hands away at the last minute and – if they were really clever – moving their legs at the same time, so their thighs didn’t get hit instead.

The abolition of the belt eventually came about when the European Court found in favour of two Scottish mothers. Grace Campbell had taken her case to the European Commission on Human Rights when Strathclyde regional education authority refused to guarantee her 11-year-old son would not be beaten with the tawse. Jane Cosans brought a similar case against Fife’s education authority.

Reilly believes the abolition of the belt is the best thing that ever happened.

“There were too many idiots using it,” he says. “You do have to put up with a lot of low-level rubbish such as chatting now but the idea of hitting someone with a three-foot length of leather is bizarre. You wonder how Scottish education got away with it for so long. If teachers are being honest, the people who were being belted were always the same. The belt did not change them.”

George Rubienski, head teacher of Craigroyston High School, agrees. “I think it was quite a barbarous thing to do,” he says. “I think some people were genuinely frightened by it, but not the people you most wanted to discipline.” He was a teacher at Craigroyston when staff there took their own decision to ban corporal punishment at the beginning of the 1980s, several years before the House of Commons voted for abolition in 1986. (It took a further 12 years, however, for corporal punishment to be banned in independent schools.) In his book, Craigroyston Days, the then headteacher Hugh Mackenzie admits that initially, staff were worried about the response to their decision to experiment with banning the belt. “Panic swept through the meeting,” he writes. “Teachers feared anarchy might ensue from telling students of our decision.”

However, in the end, all was well. “Far from there being mayhem, the students reacted well and most parents accepted the decision,” Mackenzie continues, “although, sadly, over the years a number requested that their child be belted.”

It is a request with which Nick Seaton, of the Campaign for Real Education, would sympathise. He believes most parents want to see schools and teachers being given the right to use corporal punishment again.

“As a final sanction, it seemed to work fine,” he says. “The problem these days is teachers bit by bit have lost all their effective sanctions against bad behaviour.”

Tom Dunsmore, a retired science teacher who still does some supply teaching in Fife, also believes that corporal punishment had its place. He used the belt just four or five times in his teaching career before its use was abolished in schools. “For a minority it works,” he argues. “For this minority it does them good to know what the limits of their behaviour are.

“I think we are paying the price now for something that was a regressive move. It was not in the interests of education and ultimately, the children.

“Undoubtedly, there were abuses but there are abuses wherever there are human beings. I believe in a vast majority of cases, the use of the belt was very responsible.”

However, these are lone voices. Although she agrees teachers need effective sanctions against bad behaviour, parent Laura Stuart says she would stop short of supporting a return of the belt.

“We are teaching our children we live in a society where violence is not tolerated,” she says. “I feel [a return to the belt] would be the wrong line but I think schools need more backing from parents if the children are misbehaving. Parents need to be more responsible for their children’s actions.”