Corpun file 19081
Times Educational Supplement, London, 23 March 2007
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
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
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
"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
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."
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