In rod we trusted

By Adi Bloom

Why did the British cleave to the cane long after other countries banned it?

It is the familiar refrain of many teachers: they are poorly paid and burdened with a heavy workload. They are surrounded by misbehaving pupils, whom they need to prepare for vital exams. It was also an argument used to justify corporal punishment in schools.

Twenty years after it was abolished, Jacob Middleton, of Birkbeck College, University of London, has been examining the reasons why British schools clung to corporal punishment for so long after many countries had deemed it inhumane.

As early as the 19th century, arguments were being made to spare the rod. AJ Mundella, the Liberal politician who introduced compulsory education in 1870, declared that “education should be a privilege, not a punishment”. He was supported by members of the Humanitarian Society, including George Bernard Shaw.

But while social reformers theorised, classrooms were fast becoming cauldrons of violence. One teacher was shot by a 14-year-old pupil. Inspectors were scared to enter classrooms without a gun.

Then, in the 1890s, classroom teachers were given legitimate power to punish. Tensions in schools cooled noticeably. Shortly afterwards, resistance to the cane petered out entirely — especially since, with the advent of the First World War, opposition to violence was seen as unpatriotic.

But it resurfaced in the 1930s, when advances in psychology prompted people to discuss the damaging effects of violence on children. And an academic study revealed that corporal punishment was less effective than letters home, because it could be concealed from parents.

By then, the penal system and the army had already abolished the cane. “Schools were out on a limb,” said Mr Middleton. “In prison, you had to get written permission to punish someone, have a doctor present and give the prisoner a kidney shield. In a school, an 18-year-old prefect could do it.”

It was not until 1968 that teachers themselves spoke out against corporal punishment, forming the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment. Nigel de Gruchy, then general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters, condemned them as “professional traitors.”

“Unions felt that teachers were experts,” said Mr Middleton. “Teachers knew how to control children, they knew what was best for them. Any limit on that was an attack on their professional status.”

In 1982, two mothers brought a court case claiming that caning their children against their wishes infringed their human rights as parents. And so, in 1987, corporal punishment was banned.

“But the heritage is still in the education system,” said Mr Middleton. “We’ve still got working teachers who could use corporal punishment. Some Christian schools are still arguing for it as part of their freedom of religious expression. If you ask teachers, would you like more right to discipline children, many will say yes.

“I can’t see schools making a concerted effort to bring corporal punishment back, but nothing is ever inevitable.”