Discipline is a matter of respect

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Peter Breuer, below, believes prompt physical sanctions are effective in stopping bad behaviour. Many teachers cannot cope with the serious problems of school discipline in this country and too many children are having to be expelled from school because they are out of control. Perhaps what is needed is less political correctness and more of the courage of our convictions. What those convictions are is clear from the fact that 65 per cent of people recently polled said that they were in favour of corporal punishment.

But problems of discipline have always been with us. They are the same for all species of animals, including the young of homo sapiens. During the First World War my father commanded a battery of horse artillery in the Carpathian mountains on the eastern edge of Transylvania.

My father loved his horses and had to be able to rely on them. He taught me that if a horse reared or kicked, there was no point in hitting it with the riding crop after all its hooves were back on the ground. By then the horse could not associate the punishment with what it had done.

I never got the chance to use that horse sense on horses, but when I graduated in chemistry and went into supply teaching, I bore it in mind. I got a job in a Quaker school. They did not use corporal punishment. I had to learn their style of discipline, by which they stood or fell. Apparently they fell, because there were always candidates for the detention session at the end of the week.

Punishment by Saturday detention took place when a Monday offence was already lost in the mists of time. Justice delayed is justice denied, and the same is true of punishment. When I took a permanent post as chemistry master in a Scottish boarding school, I did it my way.

Each autumn I got a new class of 13-year-olds. They came into the laboratory all agog. They gazed at the array of bottles on their work benches with eager anticipation. Too eager. I gave them an introduction to chemistry and, before they came to the first experiment, I explained the position: "There are a dozen bottles of acids, alkalis and other assorted chemicals on the shelf above your bench. Some of them are dangerous." They were impressed.

I told them that all the bottles had ground glass stoppers, which fitted only one bottle. "What may happen, if a bottle of dangerous acid is left unstoppered on the bench?" I asked. "It may get knocked over," they suggested. "Too true," I agreed, asking "and if several open bottles and their stoppers are left lying about on the bench, what is sure to happen later?" They decided: "The bottles and their stoppers will get mixed up."

"What will happen then?" I inquired. "Fumes will escape, if the stoppers do not fit," said one. "The chemicals will get contaminated by each other from the mixed-up stoppers," said another. "Well," I said "you can see that in a laboratory you must have discipline."

Then they were told that they were only allowed to take one bottle off the shelf at a time. That they had to pour what they needed out of the bottle, and that they had to put the stopper back into the bottle at once. Then they had to put the first bottle back on the shelf, before they took another bottle down. "All right," I said "start your first test." There was a flurry of activity, and within a minute there were bottles and stoppers lying about all over the place.

"Stop!" I said, and pointed to some of the open bottles. The stoppers were hastily replaced. "Do you understand what I have said about stoppers?" I asked. "Yes," they all agreed. "Well, remember what you have to do, and carry on with your work." The low hubbub resumed, and within 30 seconds there were stoppers lying about on the benches.

"Stop!" I said, and we repeated the pantomime of questions and answers, but once work had restarted it only took a minute before there was a stopper lying neglected on a bench. "Stop!" I said for a third time. "Why is that stopper not back in its bottle, MacEachern?" I always made a point of knowing all the names from the firstlesson.

There was an ominous silence. By the time each annual intake got to my laboratory they had no doubt heard of me. They held their breath. "Well, come next door," I said, and led the way into the preparation room. I pointed to a spot on the floor with the cane, the boy bent over, and I gave him one stroke on his backside so that the others could hear it in the lab.

"Giving the instructions three times should be enough, don't you think?" I asked. "Yes, sir," the boy said between gritted teeth, and went back to his place, much relieved that one stroke of the cane was all he had received. Thereafter the work still proceeded enthusiastically, but no more stoppers were left on the bench. Those are the facts.

Whatever you may say about corporal punishment, there is no doubt that it works. That is important, but what is more important is what the boys thought. What they thought was: "If that man can beat you for leaving a stopper out of a bottle, he can beat you for anything." They were right. I could, but I didn't. There was no need. In eight years in that school, day and night, seven days a week in term time, and even while acting as house tutor, I never gave out any other punishment whatever.

Personality is enough - if it is backed by a deterrent. As we know from nuclear disarmers, there are people who can say: "What is the point of a deterrent, if it is never going to be used?" Well, that is the point of a deterrent, that it never will be used, as long as the will to use it is known to be there.

If I saw a boy committing an offence, I just smiled. I knew. He knew that I knew, and I knew that he knew that I knew. That was enough. It is a matter of respect. Either you have got it, or you haven't.

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