Confusion over corporal punishment - for boys and girls

16th January 2009 at 00:00
The Scottish Office policy on corporal punishment in schools ran into problems in the late 1970s, as arguments raged over whether it was in conflict with the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, writes Neil Munro

And it emerged that "a conscious decision" had been taken in 1974 not to include any provision on corporal punishment in the legislation because it would be contrary to official policy. Pat Cox, a senior official in the Scottish Education Department, wrote that one letter had been received raising the possibility of conflict, "but we shall have to hope that no one else raises the point".

The Act laid down that one sex should not be treated less favourably than another, including in the provision of "educational benefits, services and facilities" (and another argument raged about whether belting pupils could be so described). However, Scottish Office policy, based on the 1968 Code of Practice on the Elimination of Corporal Punishment, agreed with the unions, appeared to put boys at a disadvantage by stipulating that "only in exceptional circumstances should any pupil be strapped by a teacher of the opposite sex, or girls be strapped at all".

Into the fray stepped a JP Dunne of Hamilton, who so harried the department on the issue that he was declared a "persistent correspondent" whose letters would be merely acknowledged.

Eventually, the SED's Ruth Edmiston admitted that there was a "loophole" and that Mr Dunne and the Equal Opportunities Commission, which policed the Act, were right to argue that it was illegal to discriminate between boys and girls in the use of the belt. The SED was in "an embarrassing situation," she admitted.

Publicly, however, the department continued to argue, as one official put it in June 1977, that it was the "inherent right" of teachers under the common law of Scotland to administer punishment to a pupil and that this could not be undermined by the Sex Discrimination Act or by "unilateral" decisions of education authorities.

But Miss Cox was pressing for the confusion to be cleared up. "I do not think we can continue in the position which we seem to have adopted for the past year," she wrote.

The Scottish Office was under pressure at the time, as two Scottish mothers, Grace Campbell and Jane Cosans, had taken the UK Government to the European Court of Human Rights, claiming its sanctioning of corporal punishment in schools amounted to "inhuman or degrading treatment" and therefore breached the European Convention on Human Rights. Mrs Campbell and Mrs Cosans won their case, and corporal punishment finally ended in Scottish state schools in 1986.

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