Does a cane make you more able?

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Corporal punishment has been banned for more than a decade in the UK, but it remains a hit in Tanzanian schools. Lizzy Fry reports

Being caned is a distant memory for many Britons. Therefore, it was rather a shock that at Machame Primary School, in the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, corporal punishment remains a daily occurrence. Almost every teacher carries a metre-long cane or rough-hewn stick to serve as a reminder of the consequences of bad behaviour, even if they rarely put it into practice.

One of the other volunteer teachers reported seeing a child being ordered to lie on the ground in his precious uniform before being whacked on the backs of his legs. Thankfully, the teacher did not seem to hit the boy with much force, but the embarrassment of being punished in front of his peers was enough to deter him from re-offending.

To a British teacher, parent or pupil, this would register as abuse. Corporal punishment has officially been banned in British state schools since 1986, and in the private sector since 1998. Such attacks now could warrant a spell in prison.

However, after two weeks of being at Machame, caning began to feel like the norm. I'm in no way tempted to try it, yet since being here, I understand the logic behind it. The children are immaculately behaved and polite, thus beatings are a rarity.

They hold the upmost respect for their teachers in a way that is unimaginable in UK schools. The difference here is that school offers an element of escape from the vast number of responsibilities of daily life which befall Tanzanian children from an early age.

At the beginning of all lessons, the class chants the phrase "education is the key of life". This is not simply recited, but wholeheartedly believed, as education offers each child the greatest hope for the future.

However, there are other aspects of Tanzanian schools that can make a western teacher uncomfortable. Students are expected to act as mini-servants to the teachers who order them to fetch all manner of books, bags and even their lunch. It is not uncommon for a teacher to enter a classroom empty-handed, followed by a child of seven or eight carrying 40 exercise books.

The children are also responsible for the upkeep of the school grounds, with Monday and Tuesday afternoons declared cleaning days where they wash floors, clean toilets and tidy classrooms. On Wednesdays, school closes early and the children return home to wash their uniforms. Surprisingly, they do the chores without a whisper of complaint as they have been brought up to respect their elders and to hold their tongue.

Some of this might sound more attractive to teachers than regaining the power to threaten corporal punishment. But it is important not to idealise the schools' approaches.

Lessons can be repeated over and over again, and it can be disappointing how little information some children retain. The standard approach seems to be to push on, not worry much about pupils who get left behind. This may be one explanation for the low proportion of pupils who go on to secondary school - just 12 per cent - and that only 0.9 per cent make it to university.

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