Headmaster given 18 months for spanking pupils

By Paul Stokes


A HEADMASTER who performed secret spankings on girl pupils for over 20 years was jailed for 18 months yesterday.

Kenneth Watson, 46, was allowed to continue working despite an official warning about his behaviour and carried out a further two attacks, Carlisle Crown Court was told.

A diocesan adviser visited the Roman Catholic primary school, where Watson also served as a child protection officer, after accusations by a pupil.

Watson claimed to be shocked by the allegation that he had indecently smacked the girl and the matter was not pursued, but he was warned about the possibility of dismissal if there were further incidents.

He was arrested four months later, in February this year, after committing two further offences.

As a result of publicity, 25 former pupils whose ages spanned three decades were to come forward and make allegations against him.

Watson, of Washington, Tyne and Wear, who is married with two children, admitted 11 specimen charges of indecent assault on girls aged nine to 15 at three schools in South Tyneside where he worked from the 1970s.

A further four counts of similar offences involving boys were denied and allowed to remain on the file.

Paddy Cosgrove, QC, for Watson, said: “One worrying aspect is that if the diocesan adviser who went to see him in Oct 1995 remembers the incident as he says, then surely he and the local education authority were derelict in their duty by not taking this further.”

The court was told that Watson gained no sexual gratification from what he did, but this was refuted by his victims. One told how she was made to wear a red gymslip when he smacked her and the garment was found by police in his office.

Other were spanked when he lifted up their skirts while they were alone in classrooms with him.

On three occasions he pulled down girls’ knickers and hit them on their bare buttocks. Psychiatrists said his problems were rooted in his childhood.

Judge Alastair Bell told Watson: “This was a gross breach of trust.”

Watson’s wife, Kay, 43, is also a teacher and the only daughter of Judge William Hannah, who sits at Newcastle Crown Court. She is standing by her husband.

Police were alerted after a passing comment by a 10-year-old victim to her mother and another girl from the same school came forward after publicity.

After the hearing, one of the three women who gave evidence claiming that they had been assaulted by Watson while schoolgirls said she could not believe his sentence.

“All along he has shown no remorse at all for what he has done,” she said.

In a statement, the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle said: “The Church strives in every one of its schools to provide the safest environment for the education and care of its children.”

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The Independent, London, 3 October 1996

The good old days, eh?

Judging from a school punishment book for 1930-56, children were no better disciplined in the days when teachers ruled with the cane than they are today.

By Sam Merry

PEOPLE today are rightly concerned with discipline in schools. It is something on which we can all express an opinion since we have all had experience of it. Some people think that the pendulum has swung too far towards permissiveness, but those who talk about a return to the good old days, when there was widespread respect for authority, may be making a rose-coloured spectacle of themselves.

Rummaging around under the stage of Portsmouth College, I stumbled across an old volume of the Portsmouth School Board, entitled Punishment Book for Reginald Rd Boys School. It records “every case of corporal punishment” under regulations from the New Code of 1900, and covers the years 1930-56 for seven- to 12-year-olds. It may challenge those, such as Norman Tebbitt, who think that the present problem of discipline can be traced back to the permissive Sixties.

The number of canings over the years is clearly related to the character and style of the headmaster in office, but, interestingly, caning was most frequent in the Thirties, then dropped from a high of 300 in 1934 to single figures during the Second World War, only to reach a new high of 76 in the mid-Fifties, suggesting that it was not the permissive Sixties that saw the retreat from discipline at Reginald Road, but the “Elvis years”. This raises the question of child-rearing during the previous 10 years – the period of austerity at the end of, and just after, the war.

One cannot talk of school discipline in a vacuum separated from society. If Reginald Road was reflecting society, then the society of the pre-war years was punitive and repressive, the society of the war years was permissive and the society of the Fifties returned once more to the punitive. Another way of expressing this, however, is to say that students were less disciplined before the war, very disciplined during the war, and much less disciplined after the war, until 1955. Furthermore, to judge by the ages of those punished, it is not fair to say that today small children are less disciplined than they were half a century ago.

Young people between the ages of eight and 11 were punished with between one and four strokes of the cane between the years 1929-57 for offences including inattention, bad work and “inbred tiredness”. The highest number of strokes of the cane (four) was received for truanting, but a boy could get two strokes for “inertia”, “not trying”, “idiotic behaviour” or “stealing and lying”.

The most frequently occurring offences were “talking”, “laughing”, “disobedience” (“gross”, “extreme”, or “atrocious”) and “continuous laxity”. These trivial offences may indicate the poor quality of the teaching, as well as the overweening power of teachers, though there is evidence that they suffered from exasperation (“this boy has been caned for refusing to take the slightest interest in badly needed instructions”). Another teacher wrote: “Careless inattention – this boy is a ‘howler’, starting when spoken to”.

Reginald Road appears to have been much more repressive in the Twenties than in the Forties, when fewer punishments are recorded, especially during the war years. From the nature and frequency of the punishments it may be true to say that schools were harsh, but we should not confuse repression with discipline. In fact, the high level of canings may reflect – among other things – the high level of indiscipline in the “good old days”.

Teachers seemed to reflect society’s more authoritarian nature; they undoubtedly punished for offences that would not be punished today. Was this a good thing? There is another interpretation: perhaps they were under stress because they were failing to interest their pupils. Some of the misdemeanours now appear trivial, such as “carelessness” or “turning on electric lights”. In the Thirties a boy could be caned for “wilfully breaking his pencil to get to a sharpening machine”, “deliberately dropping his pen five times on the floor”, “damaging school desks”, “playing cigarette cards”, “playing in the girls’ playground”, “playing with a drawing model” or “climbing on windows”. It may be that pupils were just plain bored with their education.

Though there is a consistent core, the range of offences at Reginald Road is much wider than the range of punishments (one to four strokes of the cane), with the consequence that there was little or no consistency in punishment. In the Twenties a boy could be caned for “not trying”, “mischief”, “playing”, “unpunctuality”, “bad spelling”, “bad writing”, “untidy exercise and work books”, “disfiguring books”, “copying”, “helping others”, “impudence”, “rudeness” and “refusing to use his eyes”. One boy got a stroke for “putting down anything in his book”, and “covering himself with ink”. Boys were caned for “passing a note and finding it amusing”, “chewing gum” (1931), and “playing with matches and toys”.

It is not clear, therefore, that in the Twenties and Thirties students were more disciplined than today, to judge from some of the offences: “throwing paper”, “making and throwing dangerous darts”, “throwing a dart at a cupboard”, “using dividers as a dart”, “damaging school desks”, “dangerous interference with other boys”, “insolence”, “disrespect” and “insubordination”.

Fighting in school in the Twenties becomes “fighting in the street on way to hospital for mass radiography” in the Fifties. Some offences indicate a level of violence that appears to parallel that of the Nineties: “kicking at other boys”, “throwing stones”, “carrying a sheath knife against orders”, “shooting ink wads on ceiling”, “unruly behaviour”, “unmannerly conduct”, “general nuisance”, and “striking another boy with a ruler”.

Surprisingly, in view of what some people say about the good old days, “obscenity” (spoken and written) was also a problem in the Thirties: “bad language”, “vulgarity and filthiness”, “making indecent motions to the class”. One boy got two strokes for “urinating on school premises on infants’ playground wall in view of infants and girls”.

Interestingly, though the permissive Sixties are often blamed for the present indiscipline in our schools, the punishment book records more serious crimes after the Second World War, in the Fifties. Some of these offences reflect the greater resources of post-war schools: “throwing papier mache models across craft room in absence of teacher”, “dangerous interference with a machine”, “fooling with globe costing 15 pounds”. One boy was caned for “being mischievous at Music Festival; another for “irreverence in scripture lesson”; another for “climbing on cookery centre roof”.

Other punishments involve toys: “bringing a water pistol to school”, “being in possession of a pea shooter” and “stealing glue pellets for pea shooter”, “playing table tennis”. “Firing a cracker in school” in 1949 becomes “letting off firework” in 1954.

In the Forties the following first make their appearance: bullying, “rough play and bullying”; while in the Fifties offences definitely prefigure the menace and anti-authoritarianism of the Nineties: “bringing open dagger to school and pushing point in boy’s back … and insolence”, “continual defiance”, “chattering after repeated warnings”, “throwing books at each other”, “behaving like hooligans on the premises of another school”, “rioting with prefect in charge”, “letting down tyres on bicycle”, “wilful damage, i.e. one biology bench”, “throwing waste paper basket at another boy”, “hitting boy with broom”, “causing commotion in streets to annoyance of parents locally” and “smoking both at school and on the school bus”.

The good old days. Sounds familiar?

The writer is a former head of history and philosophy at a further education college.

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The Daily Telegraph, London, 30 October 1996

Tories back Shephard over caning

By George Jones
Political Editor

RIGHT-WING Tories rallied behind Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, last night after she was publicly rebuked by John Major for suggesting that the cane could be brought back to state schools.

Mrs Shephard was cheered in the Commons when she reaffirmed it was her “personal view” — not shared by the Prime Minister or the Government — that corporal punishment could be a useful deterrent. The backbench display of support for Mrs Shephard came at the end of a day of confusion over the Government’s attitude to corporal punishment.

Several Tory MPs later served notice that they would put down amendments to the forthcoming Education Bill aimed at allowing state school heads to use the cane. But Mrs Shephard made clear that the Government would not back such moves.

During an early morning radio interview, Mrs Shephard hinted that the Government would support a return of the cane – abandoned 10 years ago – if there was a demand from teachers and governors.

Within hours, she was called to the telephone during a school visit in Weybridge, Surrey, to be told by Mr Major that he would not allow the issue of corporal punishment to be reopened. Mr Major said the Government had a “settled policy” against it. Officials said he made clear that the Government was not persuaded that caning was practical and would not include it among new school disciplinary measures in the Education Bill to be published today.

Downing Street’s decision to make public the disagreement dismayed many Tory MPs. It was seen as a panic reaction, fuelling an impression of disarray within Government over how to respond to Labour’s attempts to claim the moral high ground on law and order.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, seized on the carpeting of Mrs Shephard as a further example of Government “drift and confusion”.


She acknowledged that there was wide support for bringing back caning

“These are the symptoms of a government that has lost the capacity to govern and whose drift and weakness is damaging Britain,” declared Mr Blair during the first Question Time clash of the new session.

Mr Major said Mr Blair was distorting the facts. But he revealed his anger at the way Labour has pushed the Tories on to the defensive on moral issues, accusing Mr Blair of “springing publicity stunts” while the Government dealt with reality.

Mrs Shephard made plain her support for corporal punishment during an 8am interview on Radio 4’s Today programme. She acknowledged that there was wide support for bringing back caning.

“I certainly have never been against corporal punishment. I have always regarded it as a useful deterrent. I would certainly take seriously any firm proposal that came from professional groups or indeed others. We shall have to see how the Bill proceeds through Parliament,” she said.

Her remarks were seen as a strong hint that the Government might back a corporal punishment amendment. Right-wing ministers are known to have been canvassing the possibility that grant-maintained schools be given the power to bring back corporal punishment.

Mr Major was alerted to Mrs Shephard’s remarks about caning shortly after 9am, while he was holding his regular briefing meeting with officials at No 10 in preparation for Prime Minister’s Questions. He was warned that her remarks could be misinterpreted, and it was agreed to contact her to clarify what she had said and frame a form of words for Mr Major’s reply if the issue was raised in the House. One official said Mr Major authorised them to act immediately to “kill” speculation of a return of caning.

Officials contacted Mrs Shephard at 10.20am, while she was visiting the Heathside School, Weybridge. She was called off the school platform in the middle of a speech to take the call from the Prime Minister. Ten minutes later she returned to complete the speech.

Hugh Ashton, Mayor of Elmbridge, could not resist the temptation to ask her: “Could you assure us that you are still Education Secretary, Mrs Shephard?” Unruffled, she replied: “Yes. And you will be glad to know that the Prime Minister is still the Prime Minister.”


Mrs Shephard was greeted with cries of “Miss Whiplash” from Labour MPs

Downing Street denied there was any suggestion of Mr Major “rebuking or rapping the knuckles of Mrs Shephard”. A spokesman stressed how Mr Major and his Education Secretary, both East Anglian MPs, had always been on the same side on policy issues.

Mr Major and Mrs Shephard will put on a display of unity today when they visit a London school to launch the Education Bill.

Immediately after the Question Time exchanges, Mrs Shephard spoke in the resumed Commons debate on the Queen’s Speech. But the controversy over caning overshadowed the Government’s proposals for improving choice, raising standards and improving discipline.

Mrs Shephard was greeted with cries of “Miss Whiplash” from Labour MPs. David Blunkett, her Labour shadow, said the Government’s handling of corporal punishment episode had been a “complete fiasco” and she had been “slapped down in a humiliating fashion” by the Prime Minister.

Mrs Shephard confirmed that corporal punishment would not be part of the Education Bill. She added: “My personal view is that corporal punishment can be a useful deterrent to bad behaviour in schools. My Right Honourable friend the Prime Minister takes a different personal view.”

James Pawsey, chairman of the party’s backbench education committee, signalled that he would be prepared to put down an amendment allowing schools to include corporal punishment as an alternative to exclusion in the new contracts to be signed by parents. Without Government backing it stands no chance of success, though it is likely to highlight Tory divisions.


blob Follow-up: 9 November 1996 – MPs get a free vote on caning 

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The Daily Telegraph, London, 30 October 1996

Scottish cases helped to ban the beatings

By Liz Lightfoot

CORPORAL punishment was made illegal in state schools by the second 1986 Education Act which removed teachers’ immunity from prosecution for assault.

The decision was made by MPs after a long and well-organised campaign against caning. The Government was also mindful of a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in 1982 when two mothers complained about corporal punishment at schools in Scotland. Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans complained that the threat of corporal punishment was a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

They also claimed that it failed to respect their right as parents to ensure their children’s education and teaching in conformity with their own philosophical convictions. Mrs Cosans’s son had been suspended from school because he refused to be caned and she argued that such punishment amounted to a denial of his right to education.

The court did not rule entirely in the women’s favour. It decided that the schools’ use of corporal punishment had not violated Article 3 because the judges found insufficient evidence that such punishment was degrading. However, it further ruled that corporal punishment amounted to a breach of Article 2 of Protocol No 1 which guarantees a parent’s right to ensure that their children’s education and teaching is in conformity with their own philosophical convictions.

Judges decided that the parents’ objections were so strong as to amount to philosophical convictions. Though the 1986 Act continued to permit corporal punishment in independent fee-paying schools, it did not allow the schools to use it against pupils on assisted places because they were funded by the state.

It meant independent schools could cane pupils whose parents paid all the fees but not assisted pupils and it was that anomaly which led many private schools to abandon corporal punishment. As the practice fell into disrepute, more independent schools abolished it.

An attempt to get the European Court to ban beatings in independent schools failed in 1993 when the judges decided that slippering a seven-year-old boy at a private boarding school was not degrading. He had been hit three times on his buttocks, through his shorts, with a rubber-soled gym shoe.

His mother failed to argue a breach of her right to ensure her son’s education in conformity with her philosophical convictions because it was a fee-paying school which she had chosen, knowing its punishment policy.

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The Daily Telegraph, London, 30 October 1996

Love must come first but caning works, says head

By Tim King

NICHOLAS Debenham, headmaster of an independent secondary school for boys, is a staunch defender of corporal punishment.

In independent schools, unlike state schools, the cane is still legal, although most have abandoned the practice. But at St James, in Twickenham, west London, Mr Debenham is one of the few headmasters who still uses corporal punishment. Although he has not caned anyone this academic year, he estimated that up to last summer he caned six boys a year.

The boys would be caned on the rear with “one to three strokes”, Mr Debenham said. “In a really serious case it would be five.”

He added: “You have to have love first and discipline second but given that you have an appropriate relationship between teacher and pupil based on respect and love, then where someone steps over the line and does something really wrong, corporal punishment is appropriate.”

Mr Debenham, who has been headmaster of St James since it was founded 22 years ago, said he would cane a boy for telling deliberate and repeated lies to get out of trouble, serious cruelty to another boy, or repeated disobedience. Mr Debenham asked parents for their consent to corporal punishment when their child was admitted to the school.

He said: “It is no use getting permission after the offence because the punishment should be prompt. Some parents deny consent and I sometimes still take the boy if I think the boy is most unlikely to get into trouble.” He said some of his staff supported caning and some were opposed. St James has an associated girls’ school but Mr Debenham said caning was inappropriate for girls. They would respond to a rebuke whereas boys would shrug off a telling off.

He said: “When I started teaching, the cane was in frequent use. Everyone else has given it up, not because of any new-found principle, only because it was outlawed in Parliament.”

He said that because the legislation forbade caning of boys on Government-funded assisted places, most headmasters in independent schools, faced with two categories of pupils, did away with corporal punishment altogether. But his school was too small to qualify for the Assisted Places Scheme and he was unaffected.

Mr Debenham said the character of his school would be largely unchanged if caning were abolished, although he “might occasionally have to expel a chap instead of caning him”.


‘I do feel lots of teachers and parents agree with the restoration of corporal punishment’

“The reason I keep it is not primarily because I need it but because I think someone should hang on to an appropriate punishment.” It was state schools with a discipline problem that needed corporal punishment but they were the schools prevented by law from using it, he said.

“It is an ironical situation. There is a school closed because a 10- year-old cannot be controlled – that is mad,” he added. Mr Debenham said he thought public opinion was swinging back “in favour of a genuine sanction”.

John Burn, principal of a comprehensive in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, advocated the reintroduction of corporal punishment in state schools in a lecture and pamphlet published last month.

He said a few other head teachers had since told him privately that they supported his argument but he believed that most did not say anything publicly because of worries about how their local authorities and the leaders of the teaching unions might respond. “I do feel lots of teachers and parents agree with the restoration of corporal punishment,” he said.

Mr Burn said one of the reasons why expulsions from school were proliferating was because schools had few options for punishment between a ticking off and expulsion.

He said he supported corporal punishment for a youngster who was “verbally attacking and abusing” a teacher. “The young person should know very quickly that such behaviour is severely disapproved of. Corporal punishment should not be done in a vindictive way but quickly, soon after the offence has been committed.”

Mr Burn is principal of Emmanuel, a Christian city technology college which has 1,100 pupils, aged 11-18. He began teaching in 1966 when corporal punishment was commonly used and last administered it in 1980, with a belt to the pupil’s hand. He said that beyond the age of 14 corporal punishment was generally unproductive.

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The Independent, London, 30 October 1996

Caring headteacher who believes beating can be good for his boys

By Charlie Bain

St James independent school for boys in Twickenham, south-west London, is one of the last bastions of corporal punishment.

While most public schools have bowed to political pressure in the last decade and followed state schools in abolishing the cane, St James has struck a traditionalist stance.

Yet in explaining the policy, Nicholas Debenham, the headmaster, discusses care for the pupils as much as discipline and describes his school of 180 boys as very happy. “You’ve got to have love on one hand and discipline on the other – an awful lot of love and a little bit of discipline,” he said.

“If you have that and a proper relationship of trust and respect between pupils and teachers, which is what there should be, then that’s the real foundation for the child’s education.”

The cane — three strokes administered to the backside — is an ultimate sanction when pupils behave really badly.

“There are certain things I wouldn’t put up with,” Mr Debenham said. He cites deliberate cruelty to another child, repeated lying to gain advantage, or serious theft.

But there is nothing vicious or violent about caning. “People should be able to tell the difference between a vicious assault and properly measured discipline.”

He believes punishment is preferable to expulsion. “If you expel the boy, you just pass the problem on to someone else.”

Outside St James, the pupils were adamant that corporal punishment worked.

Richard Smith, 16, said that he had received one stroke of the cane when he was aged 12 for skipping a number of detentions.

“I accepted it because I realised what I’d done,” he said. “Lines wouldn’t have been a deterrent and detention obviously wasn’t, but getting the cane made me think again.”

Another pupil, Simon Bonell, 17, admitted he was worried about the cane when he first arrived at the school.

“I think a lot of the younger boys are worried about the cane, but that’s why it’s such a good deterrent,” he said.

“I went through a stage where I missed class a lot. One day I didn’t go to assembly and the culmination of offences meant I got two strokes of the cane. I had bruises for a couple of days but I learnt my lesson.”

Minal Patel, 16, who arrived in the fifth form at St James five weeks ago from another public school, Mill Hill in north London, said he immediately noticed the high level of discipline at the school.

“It’s a lot stricter here than at Mill Hill,” he said. “That, no doubt, is due to the cane to some extent. But a lot of my friends thought it was kind of strange to come to a school that dished out corporal punishment.”

© 1996 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.


blob See also: Video clips – A TV reporter visits the above school and interviews the headmaster and some caned boys

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The Daily Telegraph, London, 30 October 1996


Major panics on punishment

During a radio interview on the Today programme yesterday, Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, said she regarded corporal punishment as a “very useful deterrent” to bad behaviour in schools. She implied that she would not obstruct an amendment to the Education Bill which sought to repeal the ban on caning imposed in 1986. Within two hours, Mr Major had slapped her down publicly and attempted to forestall debate by declaring that the ban was here to stay.

From a Prime Minister in need of measures to allay public concern about anarchic indiscipline in state schools, this was a lamentable performance. Amid much windy generalisation (from all parties) about how best to restore order, Mrs Shephard showed herself willing to consider a perfectly reasonable practical measure. Her reward has been humiliation. There could be no neater illustration of the Government’s tendency to prefer words to actions when considering how to buttress social and educational order.

Whatever one thinks about caning in schools, its reintroduction cannot be plausibly portrayed as the obsession of a cranky minority. It would almost certainly have some disciplinary effect, so why dismiss it out of hand? A Conservative Government genuinely interested in educational standards should at least be open-minded about a traditional aid to authority which we suspect would command wide public support.

As we have argued before, corporal punishment, properly applied, has nothing to do with cruelty, and would help deter school bullies, minimise classroom disruption and restore some of the lost authority of the teaching profession. It would, too, reform some of those to whom it was administered. There are head teachers who do not agree with this view, and who would not restore caning even if it were allowed. But others would, and it is intolerable that those whose job it is to run schools, often in extremely difficult circumstances, should be denied an effective tool with which to do so.

The 1982 decision of the European Court of Human Rights, on which Britain’s 1986 ban on corporal punishment is based, said explicitly that it did not find caning to be a cruel or unusual punishment. The judges merely ruled that in the particular case before them, the school had not taken sufficient account of two parents’ “philosophical” objections to corporal punishment. As state schools were open to all children, not merely to those whose parents accepted established disciplinary practices – as is the case with private schools – the Government decided that caning had to go. It remains legal in the independent sector, although most head teachers do not use it.

It is necessary to make it available again in state schools, and it is an appropriate issue over which, belatedly, to exclude the Strasbourg court from the governance of this country. The aim is not to pick a fight with Europe, but to establish Parliament’s — and therefore, the people’s — right to decide how to deal with a serious domestic problem. Human rights are sufficiently protected by our national laws; they do not need to be shored up by a supranational institution, as perhaps they do in the emerging democracies of eastern Europe. It is time for the Government to end the right of individuals to appeal to Strasbourg — and at the same time to reverse the unilateral disarmament of school authorities which took place a decade ago.

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The Times, London, 30 October 1996

Few still cling to discredited stick

By John O’Leary
Education Editor

MORE than a dozen schools in England still use corporal punishment, but few are established names and the list of diehards is dwindling.

Rodney School in Newark gave up beating after publicity over the caning of five 11-year-old girls was followed by a 50 per cent drop in the number of pupils in the early 1990s. Hulme Grammar School in Oldham has also stopped since the appointment of a new headmaster.

St James Boys’ School in Twickenham, West London, still uses the cane in rare cases but it has some pupils whose parents will not give their consent.

Christian fundamentalist schools account for most of those that practise corporal punishment. The Christian Fellowship School in Toxteth, Liverpool, has used the sanction for 15 years, and the Bradford Christian School recently started using it.

By the time that state schools were barred from caning in 1987, most had already long given up the practice. The leading independent schools now also all proclaim their abstinence.

Arthur Hearnden, general secretary of the Independent Schools Joint Council, said: “We have never ruled out corporal punishment, although it cannot be used on pupils supported by state funds, but there is a general consensus against it.”

Nicholas Debenham, St James’s headmaster, said that the Prime Minister was sensible to rule out a general return to corporal punishment because the conditions for its successful use were not present in many schools. “You may need a sanction which boys slightly fear, but unless there is love and trust and respect from the beginning it will not work.”

Mr Debenham said that he had used the cane six times in the past school year, for offences such as bullying or persistent disobedience and lying. Corporal punishment is not used in the school’s junior department or in the girls’ school.


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The Times, London, 31 October 1996

Major still sore over six of the best

By Andrew Pierce
Political Correspondent

THE Prime Minister’s well-publicised opposition to corporal punishment may date back to a humiliating experience when he was subjected to six of the best in front of 24 classmates.

John Major received the once-in-a-lifetime punishment when he was still in short trousers as a pupil at Rutlish School, Wimbledon, in the mid-1950s. It was administered by the geography master Hubert Walker because the future Prime Minister did not do his homework.

Mr Walker, a popular teacher despite his propensity to swish the cane, had instructed Mr Major’s class to go to an industrial estate to note the name of all the companies. But that involved a mile-and-a-half trudge, the boys rebelled and Mr Major – who has been beset by revolts since becoming leader of the Tory Party – learnt what a bruising experience rebellion can be. When only one of the 25 boys handed in a completed exercise book, retribution came in the form of 24 sore bottoms.

There was no point in complaining to his parents, Gwen and Tom Major-Ball.

Mr Walker always announced at parents’ meetings, cane in hand, that if any parents objected to their children being beaten, they should speak out. Mr and Mrs Major-Ball raised no objections. They were assured that their son would be caned only if the need arose. It arose only once. Mr Major had learnt his lesson.

Mr Walker was encouraged to adopt authoritarian measures by Mr Blenkinsop, the headmaster, whose school regime included prefects and masters in regulation mortarboards. Mr Blenkinsop – known to the boys as Champion the Wonder Horse because of his big teeth – regularly administered the cane to ill-disciplined youngsters.

The caning of the Prime Minister brought back uncomfortable memories for his elder brother, Terry, who was caned twice at his primary school.

He told The Times: “John’s punishment was never discussed. It was not the sort of thing you talked about over the dinner table. My parents would not have been angry with the school.

“They were cross if we were caned because it meant we had misbehaved at school. Discipline was a strong point with them. I must have been naughtier than John because I was caned twice for talking to girls in the classroom.

“I deserved it. I had already been told not too. Yes, it hurt. I suppose it did work because I was never caned again. Mind you that might have been because I was too crafty to be caught.

“I don’t think caning ever hurt anyone. But I might be more old-fashioned than my younger brother.”

Penny Junor, who wrote an authorised biography of John Major, said last night: “He told me he is still indignant about that beating. It did not seem fair. He had to walk a long way to get to that homework assignment on an industrial estate.

“Then he had a journey of an hour-and-a-half back to his home in Brixton. Most of the boys did not think the trip was worth it. It explains why he is still sore about it – particularly as it was a mass beating.”

In her book, The Major Enigma, Ms Junor reported that Rutlish was the worst experience of the Prime Minister’s life. “When he went back to Rutlish in 1991 for a special anniversary, he said he had no memory of the school at all – so deeply had he buried that period of his life he did not even recognise the building.”

Peter Stokes, a pupil at the same time as Mr Major and now chairman of the Old Rutlishans Association, had only distant memories of the Prime Minister. “It was easier to remember the cane. If boys misbehaved that was how they were punished. There was a Maths master, Harry Hathaway, who kept a slipper in his back pocket as boys regularly discovered to their cost. Discipline was strong.

“People may have got the impression that the Prime Minister was educated in a poor inner-city school. Not a bit of it. It was a strict pseudo-public school. That may be why he hates the cane today.”

But Mr Major has not always been so vigorously opposed to corporal punishment. The Commons voting record shows that he was on the side of rightwingers in July 1986, when MPs came within one vote of keeping caning in state schools with parental consent. Since then, according to Tory sources, he has changed his mind.

Gillian Shephard, who was rebuked by Mr Major on Tuesday for suggesting that state schools might reintroduce the cane, was never beaten at school. She was converted to corporal punishment by her husband, Thomas, a retired headmaster who was known to resort to it.

In spite of their differences, Mr Major and Mrs Shephard put on a display of unity to mark the publication of the Education Bill yesterday. They arrived together for a tour of Cardinal Vaughan School in Kensington during which the Mr Major constantly referred to his Education Secretary as Gill. He even presented her with a Golden Delicious, declaring: “An apple for the teacher.”