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School CP - May 1982
Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 1982
The cane mutiny
PROBABLY NO set of words has ensured so much pain to so many as the adage, "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Creative writers over the centuries, of whom Charles Dickens was a noteworthy example, have shown that the main outcome of corporal punishment is a coarsening of the relationship between teacher and taught. There is the irony in Australia that while physical punishment of adults is not part of the nation's punishment system, it is allowable and acceptable to many children. Only a handful of advanced industrial countries, South Africa, New Zealand and parts of England and Scotland among them, share the practice of corporal punishment in schools with Australia. No European country -- western or eastern -- allows it.
The process of changing school and public attitudes to bring them into line with modern rather than Victorian practice is slowly gathering pace. The NSW Director-General of Education, Mr Swan, has sent a memo to all NSW principals asking them to redraft their discipline policies in consultation with parents, staff and pupils. The memo stresses that principals should bear in mind the possible abolition of corporal punishment. Clearly, the department is playing the part of a reluctant leader, prepared to encourage rather than enforce what it believes the attitude of principals should be.
The reason for the department's reluctance to push its view forward too vigorously is obvious. Corporal punishment is a "divisive issue". The State Government's report on school discipline, entitled Self-Discipline and Pastoral Care, published statistics which indicated that only 16 per cent of principals and 22 per cent of teachers in Government schools were opposed to corporal punishment. Two-thirds of the teachers and nearly 60 per cent of the principals thought that both girls and boys should be given corporal punishment. Parents and pupils were markedly less approving. Principals, teachers and pupils from non-Government schools were significantly more opposed to corporal punishment than their Government school counterparts. One of the most interesting figures to emerge was that the same percentage of parents with children at Government and non-Government schools, 40 per cent, were opposed to corporal punishment. This suggests that the attitude of non-Government school principals is closer to that of their parents than the more hard-line Government school principals and teachers.
The most common argument used to support corporal punishment is that it is needed as a last resort. Teachers probably have a different perspective from that of parents, but the report on school discipline showed that most parents did not believe there was a breakdown of discipline in Government schools. Is the last resort needed, therefore? Probably the best argument for abolition is the fact that European schools, even the rigorously academic system of France, manage well enough without recourse to corporal punishment.
There is the educational factor that the use of this form of punishment as a teaching aid defeats the teaching of self-discipline, which should be one of the prime purposes of schooling. It also reflects the premise, which is at variance with what the schools should be trying to inculcate, that people respond better to force than to reason.
Put into this context, the issue of corporal punishment embraces the wider question of the role and structure of the school. Without corporal punishment, schools have to forge disciplinary policies that are acceptable to pupils and parents. This means, in turn, that teachers have to show more real concern for children, with counselling being upgraded and the views of parents given greater recognition. It is ironic that non-Government schools seem more prepared to share responsibilities than Government schools.
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