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Spare the rod, save the child

Look at the hard evidence on caning says Jim Docking and dispose of some of the myths. Britain was the last European country to make it an offence for teachers to beat pupils. Before we rush to become the first to reinstate corporal punishment, it is worth rehearsing the arguments which led to its abolition in the 1986 Education Act.

First, the claim that caning would be a deterrent and would help to promote good behaviour in schools is not supported by the evidence. Indeed, research by Michael Rutter and his colleagues in London and by Clegg and Wiseman in the West Riding of Yorkshire, suggested that such punishment was associated with worse rather than better behaviour - even when pupils' social background and behaviour at entry to school were taken into account. Wiseman went as far as to say that caning schools "positively engender rebelliousness and do little to inhibit bad behaviour".

Second, as the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment and its champion Peter Newell pointed out in their painstaking collection of evidence, corporal punishment was not used simply as a last resort. Nor were handicapped and maladjusted children exempt. The English Vice, as Gibson called his book on the history of school punishment, was frequently used for first offences, and for minor ones too. In one of the cases supported by the European Court, a mother had complained that her 15-year-old son was subjected to caning for taking a short cut home through a cemetery. In my early teaching experience, I recall numerous incidents of children being caned for such misdemeanours as running in the corridor and stepping on forbidden turf where signs read "do not walk on the grass".

Third, it was recognised that school children were the only sector of society who lacked legal protection from violence. There was plenty of evidence to suggest that caning could be emotionally as well as physically damaging and, as such, was a form of institutionalised child abuse.

Moreover, the practice also had adverse effects on sensitive pupils who, though not necessarily on the receiving end, were disturbed by others being beaten and by being in an environment in which physical punishment existed.

Finally, teachers who were trying to combat bullying saw the contradiction between what was being practised and what was being preached. Where was the sense in urging pupils to deal with their interpersonal problems in a non-violent way while adults were seen to be using violence to assert their authority?

In 1976-77, boys at one London school received the cane on 458 occasions and girls in another school 204 times. What kind of model of civilised behaviour was being set in these places? Of course, this was not typical, but nonetheless it happened in a regime where caning was given credence. As P C Love pointed out at the time, when children who are hit at home receive such punishment in school, "it confirms their aggressive picture of adult behaviour, and it increases the likelihood that they, in turn, as adults, will resort to physical aggression to resolve their relationships with others". Small wonder that studies on the roots of delinquency have shown links between harsh discipline in childhood and aggression in adults.

So, we must be careful in assuming that what might have deterred us in the past will deter young people now. Nor can it be taken for granted that making corporal punishment legal will guarantee its use only as a last resort, nor that it will be used only for serious offences on children free from emotional and behavioural disorders. If the model teachers set is all-important - as those who are campaigning for a compulsory dress-code for teachers are admitting - then corporal punishment has no place in a society seriously wanting to address problems of bullying and violence.

Jim Docking is the author of Managing Behaviour in the Primary School and co-author of Exclusion from School: Provision for Disaffection at Key Stage 4, both published by David Fulton

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