Cover story - Sticking it out

It's only a decade since corporal punishment was made illegal, yet it is still a sore issue for some teachers, and for the children who received it.
3rd October 2008, 1:00am
Madeleine Brettingham


Cover story - Sticking it out

It's no consolation for these two to remember what every schoolboy learns the hard way," trumpeted the 1959 cover of John Bull magazine, a popular illustrated periodical, below a picture of two glossy-haired schoolboys scowling outside the headmaster's office. "That the patient man behind the door has two remedies for unofficial fisticuffs. There'll be a bout in the gym with large gloves . or the ultimate deterrent in swishy canes."

Nowadays the quaint illustration of this pair of freckled schoolboys seems to hark back to a distant era, when corporal punishment was regarded with winking indulgence. Strange, then, to think that caning was only abolished, in all schools and for all children, 10 years ago.

It happened because of the dogged campaigning of the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment, or STOPP, a small group of committed teachers, which celebrated its 40th anniversary last month.

"It was a fairly small operation, and within my school only about 10 per cent of the staff were involved," recalls Mary Marsh, a director of the NSPCC and a former campaigner with STOPP, whose membership never numbered more than 1,000 people.

"Everyone else was anxious that if they stopped, how would they keep control?"

In an age where some teachers struggle with arguably far worse behavioural problems, the cane looks like an historical artefact. But the "rod" was used "extensively and disproportionately" at Mary's school in the Seventies, she says, with children being beaten for minor infractions such as arriving in the wrong coloured socks. It wasn't even effective, in her view. "There was classroom chaos even then, and the cane didn't stop it. On the contrary, it became more hardened."

But Mary was in the minority. Even by the mid-Eighties, with STOPP fighting hard for abolition, polls showed that more than 60 per cent of parents supported caning, 50 per cent of teachers were in favour of it, and two thirds of children were in schools that practised it. Indeed, Colin Abraham, then president of the NASUWT, the teachers' union, likened depriving teachers of the cane to "a Ford worker having his spanner taken away".

Colin is now retired, but stands by his use of the cane. "One never liked doing it, but there were occasions when one felt it was the only answer," he says. "The opposition said it harmed your relationship with pupils, but I never found that to be so. On most occasions I would say afterwards, that's the end of the issue and I hope you won't hold it against me. And the pupils would say: `No, I deserved it'."

One pupil even wrote to a broadsheet newspaper during the Seventies to rally in favour of keeping the cane. "In my earlier years at this school I was caned on several occasions," he wrote. "I must admit that I deserved all those canings (and probably more) and didn't resent the punishment. People who want to get rid of the cane should tell us what they would put in its place."

This was a familiar cry among the pro-caning lobby. It was also not entirely unjustified, as subsequent figures showed. Rates of exclusion in inner London following abolition more than doubled, a phenomenon that has been backed up by at least one international study.

Harry Greenway, a former headteacher and Tory MP who took part in a back bench rebellion over corporal punishment in the mid-Nineties, is one who views alternatives to the cane as slower and more damaging forms of punishment. "Abolition took schools closer to the law. Now discipline issues are passed on to the police, and we are seeing more children in court - not necessarily a good thing."

During his years as a headteacher, Harry Greenway believes he used corporal punishment as an effective deterrent. "It was normally in the cupboard, and it was sparingly used. But STOPP poured out endless propaganda and emotive language such as "brutality". In my school, we had strict rules about how the cane was administered.

"I would never just put a cane in the hands of a teacher and say `use that if you need it'. It would have to be properly controlled."

But of course, this wasn't always the case. Despite some local authorities laying down rules about using the cane - stipulating the number of strokes, the member of staff who should dispense them, and where the incident should be recorded - stories of abuse began to leak into the press.

The head of Dalesdown Prep School in West Sussex was jailed for three months in 1986 after beating an 11-year-old boy so hard on the backside with a gym shoe it left nine-inch weals. And a Nottingham schoolboy was awarded Pounds 200 damages the same year after his woodwork teacher grabbed his neck so hard it damaged his windpipe. A further scandal arose when it was discovered that London schools' canes were being supplied by a sex shop. STOPP estimates that a series of legal cases cost the Government millions of pounds.

"It was actually a tool of the trade for some heads," remembers Nick Peacey, STOPP's chairman. "There were huge abuses of the cane in the school I worked in. One deputy head once joked to me that she raised the cane so hard when she was punishing a girl that she broke a light bulb."

STOPP's headline-grabbing research revealed there were four beatings per 100 secondary pupils every year in England and Wales, or one caning every 19 seconds. While their opponents always claimed that the rod was largely used as a deterrent, here was proof to the contrary. It wasn't until Scottish mothers Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans took their case to the European Court of Human Rights that campaigners started to make real inroads.

The mothers argued that their sons' schools' discipline policies were at odds with their philosophical convictions, and in 1982 they won their case. It opened the floodgates for a tide of similar complaints, and put the Government in an impossible position.

Peter Newell, a former STOPP campaigner, describes it as "the first significant court judgment on school corporal punishment". The same year, the National Union of Teachers passed a resolution opposing it, and the next year all of the other unions, apart from the NASUWT, did the same. "Until then, all the main unions were defending their right to use the cane. But the ruling forced the Government to see it as a human rights issue," he says.

It did, but more slowly than some had hoped. At first, the Conservatives proposed a compromise, allowing schools to beat only those children whose parents gave permission. But this was condemned as unworkable by teaching unions, a recipe for "educational apartheid". So the Government went back to the drawing board.

It wasn't until 1986 that the Labour peer Lord McIntosh managed to move an amendment to the Education Bill that changed life in British classrooms for years to come. Today, he describes it as his proudest moment. "Politicians thought they were reflecting public opinion and would be criticised as weak," he remembers. "And teachers felt they were having a disciplinary tool taken away."

The amendment was passed in the Commons by one vote - almost a fluke given that a handful of pro-caning Tories complained they had been prevented from attending by traffic from Prince Andrew's wedding. And so, 200 years after Poland (1783), more than 120 years after Italy (1860) and many years after both Japan (1900) and Russia (1917), Britain became the last country in Western Europe to abolish corporal punishment.

That the situation had continued for so long, affecting so many children, without a public outcry, seems unimaginable today, but perhaps is less surprising when you consider the climate of the time: corporal punishment for prisoners and hanging for murder were only abolished in the Sixties - and capital punishment wasn't completely wiped from the statute books until 1999.

For most of the 20th century, inflicting physical punishment was viewed as an acceptable means of ensuring co-operation and protecting the public interest.

David Blunkett, the former Cabinet minister, accepts that this is why the cane remained part of British life for as long as it did. He recalls being beaten on the hand and backs of the legs at primary school, after being wrongly accused of writing on a wall. He was Education Secretary in 1998 when the ban was extended to private schools. "A lot of people at the time had experience of corporal punishment, including me. For a long time the Government at the highest level was dominated by those who'd experienced private schooling and felt any ban was an infringement of their private rights," he says.

As late as 2005, four Christian schools took their case to the law lords, arguing that abolition was an infringement of their right to act in loco parentis. They lost their case, but stand by their position.

"Our argument was that parents had established these schools so that there would be continuity between home and school," says Graham Coyle, of the Christian Schools Trust, which supported the campaign. "Taking away this aspect of discipline policy was tantamount to the state saying to the parents, `you can no longer discipline your children in the way you want'."

Many believe the ban should have been extended to the home. Organisations such as the NSPCC are still campaigning to ban smacking, citing the wealth of evidence suggesting corporal punishment is harmful to the child.

US research indicates that smacking and caning increase the risk of anxiety, alcohol abuse, aggression and anti-social behaviour as children mimic the violent behaviour they see doled out by adults.

What's more, a US analysis shows that, even in the half of states where schoolroom paddling is still legal, crime is no lower and exam results are no higher than those where less painful methods of discipline are practised.

"In the short term corporal punishment stops the child from misbehaving, but it doesn't stop them from doing it again in the future," says Dr Tony Waterston, chairman of the Royal College of Paediatrics' advocacy committee, one of the many major medical bodies to oppose caning. "Other measures not only work as well, but have longer term benefits."

Nonetheless, the cane's abolition continues to divide opinion. One 55- year-old former teaching assistant, dismissed for accidentally striking a female pupil during a classroom brawl in which she threatened to stab another pupil, feels that teachers, attempting to keep order in inner-city schools where even the most difficult pupils are rarely excluded, face an impossible task.

Today, he bitterly regrets his actions and opposes corporal punishment. "I was a schoolboy in the Sixties. I was beaten with a slipper for raising a hand at the wrong time and once saw a geography teacher slap a boy so hard across the face it knocked him out," he remembers. "But the school I worked in was anarchy, with daily incidents and staff off with stress or depression. We weren't all that well behaved in my day, but there was a line we didn't cross."

That line, in many older teachers' eyes, was three foot long and made of bamboo, a whip-thin warning against committing the severest of infractions. To its opponents, in human hands, this innocuous instrument was transformed into a brutal enforcer, ineffective and liable to abuse.

But whatever your view, the days of canes being advertised in teaching magazines for 11p a pop are unlikely to return. A decade after it was locked back in the cupboard for good, and 40 years after a small group of British teachers clubbed together to oppose it, this most controversial of instruments can still inspire a stinging debate


1669: The first recorded protest against corporal punishment in Britain. A "lively boy" presents a petition to Parliament against the, "accustomed severities of the school discipline of this nation".

1783: Poland abolishes corporal punishment.

1967: A watershed report on primary schools by Lady Plowden explicitly advocates abolition in Britain.

1968: STOPP - the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment - is formed by Gene Adams, a London teacher.

1979: London Borough of Haringey's Labour council becomes first to abolish corporal punishment.

1982: Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans, two Scottish mothers, win the right to withdraw their sons from school physical punishment in a landmark case at the European Court of Human Rights.

1984: STOPP admonishes Prince Andrew for trivialising the debate after he's rumoured to have visited the Schoolboys' Dinner Club, a west London restaurant specialising in canteen food and canings.

1987: Corporal punishment is abolished in state schools. Private schools may continue to cane pupils, but not those on assisted places.

1997: Conservative backbenchers stage a rebellion, attempting to reinstate the cane.

1998: Corporal punishment is abolished in private schools under David Blunkett, the then Education Secretary.

2005: Four Christian schools go to the law lords arguing for their right to retain corporal punishment with parental consent. They lose the case.

2008: Outcry as the Christian Tyndale Academy in Forest Gate, east London, which falls outside the legal definition of a school, is able to continue smacking pupils across the hand.

This week A survey by The TES finds that a fifth of teachers would bring back the cane.

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Register for free to read more

You can read two more articles on Tes for free this month if you register using the button below.

Alternatively, you can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters

Already registered? Log in

You’ve reached your limit of free articles this month

Subscribe to read more

You can subscribe for just £1 per month for the next three months and get:

  • Unlimited access to all Tes magazine content
  • Exclusive subscriber-only articles 
  • Email newsletters