Skip to main content
article icon

Soft on teachers, soft on the belt

Article | Published in TES Newspaper on 8 January, 1999 | By: David Henderson

Scottish Office records of 30 years ago show how ministers ducked banning the tawse, reports David Henderson

THE Labour government's reluctance in the late 1960s to upset teachers and intervene in classroom practice ensured the belt survived for a further 15 years.

Pressure was building throughout the sixties for an outright ban but Scottish Education Department papers, released under the 30-year rule, show ministers were reluctant to legislate. Instead, they backed a consensual approach towards gradual elimination of corporal punishment.

The Liaison Committee on Educational Matters, an umbrella group of unions, headteachers, employers and civil servants, took more than two years to produce a code of practice on phasing out corporal punishment. Published in February 1968, the code recommended the belt only as a last resort and advocated alternative sanctions. Three years earlier, a primary school memorandum suggested the belt should not be needed.

But the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association in 1967 advised civil servants involved in drafting the code that teachers would not be prepared to eliminate the belt "until a proved alternative is forthcoming".

Nevertheless, a spokesman said the code was an "extremely handy guide for teachers" and would "act as a deterrent to anyone inclined to be over-severe in the administration of corporal punishment".

The Scottish Schoolmasters' Association, commented: "Most of the points are already followed by teachers anyway. And I would disagree with the mollycoddling of girls."

The TES Scotland attacked the outcome. "The code of practice will be seen by teachers who have dispensed with corporal punishment as licence to beat. Those who use and indeed rely on this sanction as the basis of their discipline, will be confirmed in their practice," it said.

The Glasgow Herald, in an editorial, agreed. "The code contains little that is new and nothing that is enlightening," it stated.

The code said the belt should not be used for poor class performance, truancy or lateness, or in infant classes. It should only be used following clear warnings and only given by striking the palm of the pupil's hand. Girls should be exempt in secondary school.

"Where used, corporal punishment should be used as a last resort, and should be directed to punishment of the wrong-doer and to securing the conditions necessary for order in the school and for work in the classroom."

But whipping boys in approved school was strongly supported by heads and school managers in the late sixties. Bruce Millan, the Education Minister, sought to bring approved schools into line with the code of practice and encountered strong resistance.

Corporal punishment was used in Scotland 10 times as often as in English approved schools. Heads had mostly stalled following a Scottish Office circular in 1967.

"Over-hasty withdrawal may lead to a general breakdown of discipline and force the acceptance of standards that would not be accepted at home or day school," the Approved Schools Association (Scotland) advised in January 1968.

Private letters between psychologists who worked in approved schools and HMI tell a different tale. Max Paterson wrote to John McPherson, HMI responsible for approved schools, about the true picture of beatings.

"On one visit to another school, I was told by the headmaster as a 'joke' that a child, an 11-year-old, bent over the desk to receive his punishment, had soiled himself after two strokes. The child had panicked, jumped and run around the room. The head said, 'you should have seen the job I had before I caught him to give him the rest'."

The school was Dr Guthrie's Boys' in Edinburgh.

Punishment books in approved schools did not reflect the actual number of beatings or that some pupils were held down, Mr Paterson wrote. He urged ministers to bring in an immediate ban on belting on the buttocks which he described as "vicious in the realm of punishment or of attitude". It also had sexual undertones.

Heads and managers largely defended continued beatings. The head of St Andrew's School, Rhu, said corporal punishment "should be to the eventual benefit of the boy". In 1967, 28 boys were belted for violence towards each other and 38 for insolence.

Thirteen absconders enjoyed the benefits of the tawse. "In each of these, the application of corporal punishment was meant as a therapeutic aid," the head said.

Thomas Hand, head at Balrossie School, Glasgow, wrote: "When it has been decided that corporal punishment is the most appropriate treatment for a serious offence and when strokes are administered on the posterior it is surely right to assume that it is intended that the punishment in this case should be painful to the recipient.

"This is not the case when administered over corduroy trousers and underpants with a light tawse. It is considered that when the occasion demands it, special clothing should be worn to produce the desired effect. Alternatively, a heavier type of tawse should be used."

Mr Hand added: "The deterrent value to others of corporal punishment is increased when witnessed by a group and has probably more effect on the recipient when he is dealt with before his fellows."

He said beatings had "a corrective and deterrent" effect on certain individuals. A study had shown that most boys believed there was insufficient use of corporal punishment. No grudges were borne against the administrators of punishment, he added.

J Hill, head of Balgowan School, Dundee, wrote: "We have been trying since 1959 to phase out the belt. It is inevitable with modern thinking, modern methods of treatment - the accent constantly on understanding the individual child - that the future will see approved schools managed well without corporal punishment. I look forward to that day. But not in 1968."

Leader, page 18

Subscribe to the magazine

as yet unrated

Comment (11)

  • The "belt" in Scotland was a cruel abuse that was allowed to continue for far too long. A misguided saddler in Fife had been allowed, and even encouraged, to produce straps of such fearsome thickness and density that their effective use was nothing less than child torture. And these were used in the vast majority of Scottish schools including illegally, against the local authority’s wishes, in Glasgow. The pain was unbelievable and agonising, and could be continued for up to six strokes, when the first one or two had already rendered the child's hands swollen and contused, and the recipient in a paroxysm of pain. It is hard to credit now, but just to see and feel the weight of one of these implements is shocking. And in some schools they were in daily and almost random use as a punishment of first resort. In the hands of sadists (and sadly there were too many of those) it was effectively torture. And new teachers were drawn into the foolish practice, even at a time when after the supposed 'liberation' of the sixties it should have been clear to any rational person that it was an unacceptable anachronism. Here is the story of one silly wee lassie who joined in with some apparent enthusiasm and still feels no shame:

    Back then, the worst thing was to let your friends see that you 'couldnae take it', but now we're in our 40s and 50s and older, it's time to stop pretending 'it didnae dae me ony hairm' and show this up for what it was - plain and simple abuse. And it's not too late to name and shame some of the worst perpetrators.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    7 February, 2010


  • I agree with James' sentiments and there is no doubt that a number of children brought up under the "belt" regime had to live with sexual problems connected with the tawse.

    In fact, some of the "sadists" quite clearly got their kicks out of using the instrument on children.

    It woul be interesting to read some of the other readers' comments about the modern way of dealing with behavoural problems- restorative practices.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    9 March, 2010


  • I was sent to Geilsland Approved School for boys, Beith in the 1960s.
    There was a lot of punishment there, and the belt (tawse) was given over gym shorts.
    None of us resented the punishments, and we respected the staff.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    28 February, 2012


  • I was in Dr Guthrie’s in the early 1970s, the punishments were brutal. You didn’t just get the belt over your bare backside but sometimes halfway up your back and all the way down to behind your knees. Also, another favoured punishment by a psychopathic teacher ‘unnamed’ was breaking your knuckles with old Victorian keys and breaking the palm of your hands with a medicinal ball. These punishments were given out for the flimsiest of reasons, like, in the winter the corduroy shorts you wore, ‘they sowed up the pockets’, putting your hand down them to keep warm got you the belt. I was also in Geilsland 1974 and compared to Dr Guthrie’s a holiday camp. I could tell you all a lot about Dr Guthrie’s but what’s the point. Apparently people like me deserved it all because we were criminals….regardless of the fact that I was only 11 and my father was in Erskine Military Hospital.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    18 January, 2013


  • Andy you can only speak for yourself. I'm sure lots of Geilsland boys resented the punishments given out at the school and did not respect the staff because of this. I was a resident in the early 70's and it was brutal as I suspect you know. You did place some stats yourself on the geilsland web page at which you found on this TES site under the heading "Sixties discipline was savage business. It's interesting that you placed this on the geilsland site on 6/1/2012 which means you were aware of the schools brutal history but then posted the comments above on the 28/2 /2012 despite this knowledge. I like yourself have made conflicting comments about the school and feel it is common for people to do this and shows an attempt to cope with past experiences.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    26 February, 2014


  • Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    6 July, 2014


  • I was in Balgowan in the 60's till 1970 and the belt was in frequent use or as we called it the scran 6 of the tawse over the bare buttocks.
    It happened to me numerous times for absconding. I was also made to sleep in a brush cupboard and to stand on the line. This was a line in the playground. I thank god that these kind of practices no longer happen. I was there from 12 to 15. Another thing I disagree with is that as I was sentenced to 1 To 3 years I still have this on my disclosure refs

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    7 July, 2014


  • I was in Balrossie with my brother in the early sixties reason ( not going to school ) and I was transferred to Dr Guthrie's 1964 there was no abuse at Gutherie's but I was physically abused at Balrossie and I still remember every one of there names I am James Brown

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    30 August, 2014


  • I was in Dr Gutrhie's from 1962 - 1963. At no time was anyone abused or bullied that I know of. I think, I enjoyed most of my time in the Guthrie's. I was called Wishbone in there because I had a bit of a growth on my chin.It wasn't a bad place.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    27 June, 2015


  • Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    16 October, 2015

  • I was in Dr Guthries from 63-65 at no time did I see or here of any abuse .in fact we had good staff at that time the headmaster was Mr Miller/ Keddie/ Glass /Blackburn / Cherrie /Riddoch/just to name a few . I was transferred there from Balrossie . now that was totally different. there was abuse going on I don't know about sexual abuse but I was physically abused one day a Mr Leckie took me down to the playingfield to keep out of the way of the school inspectors as my legs and back was covered in belt marks (THANK YOU Mr PAIN PERVERT HANDS ) . I was interviewed by police a few years back but I said I was not willing to take it any further but after reading a few letters I wish I did any way if any one wants to get in touch please do I am James Brown

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

    22 October, 2015

Add your comment

Subscribe to TES magazine
Join TES for free now

Join TES for free now

Four great reasons to join today...

1. Be part of the largest network of teachers in the world – over 2m members
2. Download over 600,000 free teaching resources
3. Get a personalized email of the most relevant resources for you delivered to your inbox.
4. Find out first about the latest jobs in education