The day my life changed - When I realised we'd won the fight to ban the cane, I felt triumphant

10th September 2010 at 01:00

For me, it started as an emotional thing: just a feeling that corporal punishment was wrong. But it ended as an absolute conviction.

Corporal punishment used to be just another part of a teacher's armoury. When I began working as a supply teacher at a girls' school in east London, I would see people wandering around the school carrying canes.

This was 1968. I was horrified that the cane was being used on girls. I couldn't see any rationale for it. And this was a fairly chaotic school: the cane wasn't making any difference whatsoever.

Then I saw an advert for a meeting in Westminster, the first meeting of the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP), and I decided to go. It was packed. There were hundreds of people, filling the hall and spilling out on to the stairs.

I joined the committee and we hired a bigger room for our next meeting. Then virtually nobody turned up.

We ran a sharp, tight little campaign. We had to think about ways of expressing ourselves. Did we talk about "whacking people", "smacking people", "caning", "slippering" or "welting"? The way you express an idea creates an image in people's heads.

In the very early stages, another organisation wanted to join us. Their idea was to hire a plane and drop leaflets over Eton. But you can do without friends like that when you are dealing with such a sensitive issue.

We didn't need to worry about attracting publicity. Anything that was said about the subject was picked up very quickly: the topic is attention-grabbing. But we didn't particularly want to be in the media. We just wanted to abolish corporal punishment.

People often thought that there was a huge groundswell of people who resisted change. But there wasn't. There were individuals who jumped up and down in defence of caning, but usually it was the same old same old. Most people were pretty ambivalent.

I suppose corporal punishment might have done some good to teachers' morale, but you were also risking injury to the kids: some lost the use of their thumbs after being hit on the hand. And there was the psychological damage caused by your role model beating you up.

If anything, it just provoked violence. There were schools in London where kids were being hit all day, every day. The kids would wait until they reached the sixth form, and then torch the teachers' cars. People forget, but we have come a long way since then.

We needed time to build on good examples. We pointed to places such as Poland, which had given up the cane a long time ago. We built up evidence, showed that there was nothing to be worried about: giving up corporal punishment would have absolutely no impact in schools.

It was very satisfying when corporal punishment was outlawed in 1987. The reason it was so satisfying was because it had taken such a long time: it took us more than 15 years to get there.

The moment our achievement came home to me was when we abolished STOPP. I chaired the meeting when we closed down. It was just a small, very bureaucratic event, and then we had a drink afterwards. But it was one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. We had set ourselves a thing to do, and we had done it. That's not something you can say very often.

Nick Peacey, former chairman of STOPP, is now a member of the Faculty of Children and Health at the University of London's Institute of Education. He was talking to Adi Bloom.

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