Sparing The Rod

Caning was abolished 20 years ago. But do some teachers still wish it hadn’t been? Mark Gould reports

Twenty years ago, after weeks of impassioned debate, warnings of total social breakdown and a hair’s-breadth vote, legislation banning corporal punishment in UK state schools became law. Debate raged over whether the change would necessitate slashing class sizes and bringing in more teachers, to ensure classes did not become disruptive. In the event, the sky did not fall in. Yet, while very few teachers want a return to the days of the cane, strap, tawse or slipper, some do speak of feeling that the rug was pulled from under their feet when physical punishment was no longer available.

“There certainly was no plan B when it was abolished,” recalls Alan Rutter, now the head of a primary school in Cumbria. “I remember children who were disruptive and being smacked regularly telling me: ‘You can’t smack me now, I’ll have you in court’.”

It was a Conservative education secretary, Kenneth Baker, who presided over the legislation, but it did not carry unanimous backbench support. Several pro-caning Tory MPs missed a key vote in July 1986, which was won by 231 votes to 230, because they were stuck in a traffic jam caused by preparations for the wedding of Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson. The then prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, did not vote as she was having dinner with Nancy Reagan, wife of the US president.

Lord Baker recalls the landmark judgments brought by two Scottish mothers, Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans, which preceded and prompted the legislation. In 1982, they went to the European Court of Human Rights, which upheld their view that beating children against a parent’s wishes was a violation of their human rights. “After these cases,” Baker says now, “it was clear that corporal punishment could not be sustained. It was on the way out anyway – many schools were giving up and there was a strong ‘stop smacking’ campaign at the time.”

Baker was pro-abolition. His only memory of corporal punishment, as a pupil of Hampton school in Middlesex and St Paul’s school in London, is “an almighty cuff around the ear for planing a piece of wood the wrong way in carpentry class. I never had to bend over, though.”

Soon after the act became law, the education department issued a circular for local authorities, parents, governors and teachers confirming that not only beatings but also slappings, rough handling and “throwing missiles such as chalk” were outlawed. Teachers who transgressed were liable to a civil action for battery, but not to criminal prosecution “provided that the punishment is moderate and reasonable”, said the guidance. Teachers who accidentally struck a blow while breaking up a fight, for instance, were protected.

Howard Brown, who teaches ICT at a secondary school in Sunderland, says the ban on corporal punishment left teachers in a difficult position. “When the change came, they took something away without anything to replace it with that was a real threat,” he says. “You would threaten detentions, but some of the most disruptive just didn’t turn up to them. And if you excluded them from school, they took it as an extra holiday.”

Dealing with disruption

Brown feels the act was just the excuse some children needed to create “high- and low-level classroom disruption”, but says ways of managing classes have moved on. “We have developed some great strategies for dealing with disruptive pupils now, such as isolating the child – putting them next to someone who is not a friend and not disruptive – but not excluding them from lessons.”

Rutter feels there are a variety of reasons for the general worsening of behaviour in the classroom. “So many things in society have changed that it is not a simple, level playing field. Schools are very inclusive – a lot of children with special needs or learning difficulties are in the mainstream.”

One of the leading figures in the campaign to abolish corporal punishment was Tom Scott, then a teacher in Tower Hamlets, east London, who helped set up Stopp, the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment. Scott is believed to have quit teaching since, and retrained as a theatre director. His line on corporal punishment was that not only did it degrade teacher and pupil, it was also counter productive.

Mary Marsh, an active member of Stopp and now the director of the NSPCC, saw punishment used “gratuitously and with impunity” when she taught in large comprehensives. “I really was appalled by it,” she says. “It showed the wrong way for adults to work with children and build relationships with them.”

As headteacher at the Queen’s school in Watford in the 1990s, Marsh instigated a students’ charter to complement the parents’ charter. “We set up a charter for students, which they helped write, which included what should and should not be acceptable for students and teachers. It included timekeeping and standards of behaviour. Students want those things just as much as teachers.”

Marsh says corporal punishment was often counterproductive, “a badge of honour” for the most disruptive pupils. And Brown says the only students who were genuinely scared of it were the well-behaved ones, who never needed it. “Apart from the human rights point of view, there was also the argument that it wasn’t a deterrent for those who were truly disruptive – it was like water off a duck’s back,” he says.

But he feels physical punishment did work for certain types of pupil. “The short, sharp shock stopped a lot of hangers-on, the people around the one or two disruptive regular offenders, the people who were a little quieter and always dubious about going at disruption with full force.”

In 1986, as the legislation was making its way through parliament, calls for abolition may have been going with the grain of educational opinion, but corporal punishment was still common. In May 1985, the Guardian reported the findings of the Advisory Centre for Education (Ace), which used official school returns to show an average 4.7 recorded beatings per 100 pupils in secondary schools each year. In primary schools, the annual rate was at least one beating per 100 pupils.

Ace concluded: “Extrapolating nationally produces an estimate that there are nearly 250,000 officially recorded beatings in each school year in England and Wales – or one every 19 seconds.”

Rutter admits some teachers “got out of hand”, but he doesn’t remember wholesale beatings.

“I did use the cane,” he says, “but it was strictly supervised by another senior member of staff, usually the deputy head, and I had to sign a book, which recorded who was receiving the punishment and the reason. The book was also signed by the witness.”

There and then

Many pupils, he says, claimed they preferred to receive their punishment there and then, rather than be put in detention. And those who went home and moaned to their parents that they had been smacked would probably have been told they had deserved it. “Nowadays parents and children know their rights and are more apt to complain when they feel these have been violated,” he says.

Some surveys suggest that significant numbers of parents feel discipline has suffered since the ban and want to see the return of the cane. A 2005 survey of nearly 1,700 parents by the ParentMail website found 20.8% would welcome the restoration of corporal punishment in schools, with 44.4% saying they would like it to be an option.

Rutter says parents are often misled by media myths that any physical contact between teachers and pupils is now taboo. “In primary schools, you can’t go through a day without physical contact, from simply ruffling a child’s hair who has done well, to taking a child by the upper arm and guiding them somewhere,” he says.

“Restraint is where the confusion comes in. We use a system called ‘team teach’ to deal with kids who are kicking off and becoming violent and abusive, so that teachers have a lot more confidence when restraining. Two members of staff must be involved in the restraint.”

But an active minority of teachers still want to be able to hit pupils. Phil Williamson, head of the private Christian Fellowship school in Liverpool, went to the European Court of Human Rights to challenge the ban on corporal punishment in independent schools, which took effect in 1999.

The campaign was supported by the parents at the school and backed by 40 other Christian schools across the UK. The court agreed that there was nothing to prevent schools using corporal punishment on children with the consent of their parents. But the UK court of appeal finally rejected the bid in 2005.

“Europe ruled that it was infringing parental rights to ban us from using corporal punishment when we had permission,” Williamson says. “But the UK government said, ‘That is not the way we read it and if you use corporal punishment we will close you down’.”

He feels the last 20 years have proved the legislation to be “an absolute disaster”. “Teachers are less safe, there is more bad behaviour and violence in schools and that translates into more bad behaviour in society. I think Ofsted and the politicians are out of touch with what is really going on in schools.”

Even Brown has occasional nostalgia pangs. “You order a detention and the pupil comes back the next day forgetting that it is because they had done something wrong. A short, sharp shock would be a way of dealing with things there and then.”

But Marsh disagrees. “It’s simply wrong. Adults should not be bringing children up short by resorting to violence.”