The Cane Mutiny

Allen Sharp looks at Corporal Punishment

The Inner London Education Authority recently announced its intention to ban corporal punishment in its schools. The response to that announcement by one of the largest teachers’ unions was a threat to instruct its members to refuse to administer other forms of punishment, such as detention.

Many people might find that response surprising, particularly if they are aware of a very vigorous and vocal campaign against corporal punishment by another teachers’ organisation called STOPP (Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment).

STOPP does not represent a majority view in the teaching profession, though many lay people would find their arguments persuasive. STOPP maintains that corporal punishment is degrading and barbaric and rightly points out that Britain is one of the few remaining European countries to use this form of punishment.

To a generation brought up in the traditions of Tom Brown and the characters of Charles Dickens, the very words “corporal punishment” are probably enough to evoke images of merciless thrashings of little boys who, if not undernourished and unloved, are at least dying of consumption. It hasn’t been quite like that for a long time but let us, in fairness, ask whether three strokes on each palm of a 6ft lout who has just been kicking someone’s head in the schoolyard is “degrading and barbaric.”

Yes, it is degrading — as is any form of punishment. Whether it is barbaric might best be answered by remembering that some forms of mental punishment would make a good thrashing look kindly. The major criticism of corporal punishment is probably neither of these, but the fact that it is not particularly effective.

If that is so, then why have a teachers’ union reacted so positively to the threat of its removal, and why are we one of the few countries in Europe to retain it?

The answer is very simply that corporal punishment is one form of sanction which teachers can use. Those most in favour of its retention would doubtless change their attitude if they felt that there were better alternatives. In making comparisons with other countries, the question is not whether or no they use corporal punishment, but what is their alternative choice of sanctions and — just as important — what kind of backing do they get in their use, from parents in particular and society in general.

One nice illustration of the point comes from Soviet Russia in an area where there is no corporal punishment in schools — but the misdemeanours of the children are posted on the notice board in the work-place of the parents.

British teachers have remarkably few sanctions at their disposal. Expulsion, exclusion and suspension are so fraught with legal difficulties that it is the wrongdoer who often ends up looking like the hero.

Comprehensive schools, with children travelling long distances to attend them, have found detention systems difficult, if not impossible to operate. That leaves little else but “lines” — long regarded as useless, irksome to chase up and subject to all kinds of schoolboy abuse from “re-use” to obtaining them from other children by blackmail or for money.

Add to this the fact that many schools have in them children who should be in special institutions, but for whom there is no room. Recognise that many parents are indifferent to the problems of the school and that some are positively antagonistic to its efforts, and you begin to see why many teachers are reluctant to lose another sanction which — whatever else — is simple, quick and irrevocable.

To ban corporal punishment without a careful examination of the whole system of sanctions recalls a magistrate of my acquaintance who, having before her a child who had been using his wellingtons to walk on the electrified railway, promptly confiscated the wellingtons.