Thirteen years after it was outlawed in the state sector, corporal punishment is about to become illegal in private schools. Wendy Wallace meets the head who's prepared to fight to keep it.
Next Wednesday, under the School Standards and Framework Act, corporal punishment will become illegal in private schools as it has been in state ones since 1986. For the most part this piece of legislation simply catches up with the reality on the ground; independent schools have by consensus abandoned the practice, and the Independent Schools Council is not aware of any still using beatings as a form of punishment.
One of the last to change was St James Boys' School in west London, which only put away the cane a year ago. "It has made no real difference to discipline," says head teacher Nicholas Debenham. "I expected more expulsions but it hasn't happened yet." Crucially, it is also better for business. "Caning gets very bad vibes from parents," says Mr Debenham.
The ban on caning is largely unlamented, except by the leader writers of the Daily Telegraph ("The younger generation will now never know the advantages of blotting paper over the silk handkerchief stuffed down the pants... Goodbye, whacker, old thing. You will be missed."). But a group of small, independent Christian schools, led by Phil Williamson of the Christian Fellowship school in Liverpool, believe that the ending of corporal punishment in schools is partly to blame for what they see as widespread moral decline in society. They feel so strongly about their God-given right to administer "corporal discipline" - as they term it - that they are preparing to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights. "I think we have a duty to prick the conscience of the nation," says Mr Williamson.
The Christian Fellowship School stands in a suburban Liverpool street, next door to a darkly looming Victorian church and with a view of both the Catholic and Anglican cathedrals. But the world view from inside this 200-pupil school is startlingly different from that in mainstream schools. "We live in a fallen world," says head teacher Phil Williamson. "I think people will look back on this period of education and view it as very impoverished."
In short sleeves, with a pen in his pocket and blue eyes painfully magnified by his glasses, Phil Williamson is a solicitous head teacher. This is made clear when moments after the TES arrives at the school, a pupil breaks his arm in a playground fall. Mr Williamson is kind and re-assuring, seeing the boy into the ambulance with an arm round his shoulder. There is no contradiction, as he sees it, between his obvious care for children and his desire to retain the right to hurt them. "The important thing is developing good relations with the child," he says, "where there is mutual respect. In that context we would be prepared to correct a child if they were consistently making the wrong moral choices."
Younger children, up to the age of nine or ten, are smacked on the hand or leg, usually by the class teacher, but only if they "go way beyond the bounds of acceptability", says Mr Williamson. Older children, if they are boys, are sent to him to be hit with what he calls a paddle, a wooden bat he keeps in his office. Girls are hit on the hand with a strap by "a lady teacher".
Does it work? "Some children definitely do benefit from a smack," he says. But 80 to 90 per cent, he says, never get smacked in their time at the school, potentially from age four to 16. Do some turn up in his office repeatedly? "If I have to whack them on the backside two or three times," he says, "that's a lot. It happens spasmodically. It definitely is a deterrent." The whacking, he says, is meant not to injure but to "definitely sting".
Mr Williamson keeps a Bible on his desk, along with a dictionary and a copy of a book called The Good, the Bad and the Misled - probably less racy than it sounds. He knows his cause is not a popular one with journalists. Staff have been so wounded by what they see as hostile media coverage - "school fights for the right to beat children" said a headline in the local paper - that they usually won't talk to the press. What's more, Mr Williamson fears that New Labour's religion is secular humanism - "a religion with man as its god and its centre," he shudders. But he denies feeling persecuted, preferring instead the word "misunderstood".
"We're misunderstood by educationists, journalists, government ministers and MPs," he says. "Joe Public has been very supportive for us. Joe Public is sick and tired of the experts pontificating and making a mess of things."
Mr Williamson cites the Bible, parental will and the Judeo-Christian tradition in his defence of physical punishment. "We're aiming at sensitising the child's conscience to right and wrong. This has been part of the Judeo-Chritian heritage from time immemorial and part of the way young people have been brought up in this country. It is tried and tested," he says.
He sighs often in the course of the interview and appears not to enjoy talking about corporal punishment - although it seeps into his language. He fears, for instance, that he will be "slapped on the wrist" if he discloses the name of the school's barrister. But what really exercises Mr Williamson and his colleagues is the development of a Christian curriculum; the "smackings" are a mere detail of a system of education which has little in common with the mainstream. Children here do not sit SATs - "we don't believe in an assessment-led curriculum" - although they do follow key stage 4 and take GCSEs. The school has been working with other Christian schools to develop their own version of the national curriculum from reception through to year 9, a theological and professional challenge which results in corridor displays about "keeping healthy for Jesus" and a science curriculum based on the creation story. Moral guidance is at the heart of their mission. "We do not believe that the nature of a child is inherently evil or inherently good. We believe God has given everyone a conscience to direct and guide them but that conscience needs help to develop properly," Mr Williamson says.
The Christian Fellowship school has the shabby but cared-for feeling of a school run more on commitment than cash - parents pay pound;130 per month to send their children here and the school receives no government funding. All the 25 staff are committed Christians, as are the majority of parents - who give written permission for the use of corporal punishment.
It is these genuinely-held beliefs which the European court may deem to amount to an "overwhelming moral value", giving this minority group the fundamental human right to bring up their children as they see fit. Barrister John Friel, who has taken on the case (and whose name Mr Williamson eventually disclosed), will need to argue it more convincingly than Jeff Holloway, head of the 32-pupil Emmanuel Christian school and a supporter of the pound;5,000 campaign. "Corporal punishment is not just a deterrent," Mr Holloway says. "It's a means of correction. We're looking for a change of attitude, an acknowledgement that an act was wrong." Why would a smack bring that about? "I'm not sure that I can answer that one."
But the Christian campaigners will benefit from the still-anomalous situation which allows parents to smack their children, while denying teachers - who in law stand in loco parentis - the right to do so. And a Department of Health survey in the mid-1990s found that over 90 per cent of children had been hit by a parent at some point, with one in six experiencing "severe punishment". Children's charities are joining in a vigorous campaign to make smacking in the home illegal, but with opinion polls consistently showing that parents are in favour of the right to smack, and the practical difficulties of enforcing a ban, the government appears in no hurry to act.
The Christian Fellowship school and its partners in the appeal are preparing to apply to the European Court for interim relief, a measure which if granted would suspend the legislation until their full application is heard. The interim relief is unlikely to be granted, but with up to 40 small independent Christian schools involved in the cause, they may prove their case at the European Court. Says Phil Williamson, "I want the Government to know that we're here and we're not going away."