Ending fear and repression in the classroom

5th January 1996 at 00:00
Moves to ban the "tawse" in the 1960s were thwarted by the lack of agreed alternative forms of punishment and by a substantial body of teacher and public opinion which favoured its retention as the ultimate sanction.

As late as February 1966, Scottish Education Department officials were advising Judith Hart, the education minister, that many classroom teachers backed the continuation of corporal punishment, although the Educational Institute of Scotland had now come out in favour of its gradual removal and had persuaded the Liaison Committee on Educational Matters of its case. The committee comprised the SED, the directors of education, and the teachers' unions.

A report from district inspectors found that few schools had entirely abolished corporal punishment and that most teachers wanted it kept as "an instrument of last resort". Teachers were said not to be keen on such punishments as detention and exclusion from class.

In a national survey the inspectors reported that the belt had declined in primaries, rural areas and senior secondaries. But corporal punishment for poor work was still continuing, while for bad behaviour it was continuing "fairly steadily, particularly among secondary pupils following non-certificate courses in urban areas". It was rarely inflicted on girls.

They added: "While segregration of troublemakers into a separate class has been tried, it has not been a success. However, smaller teaching groups for less able pupils are found to be valuable."

The officials advised Mrs Hart: "The changing attitude of teachers and parents, better arrangements for counselling pupils and the widening of educational opportunities which vocation-centred courses and comprehensive secondary reorganisation will bring, will, we think, produce an atmosphere in most schools in which the threat of corporal punishment will cease to be regarded as necessary for the maintenance of discipline."

The campaign for the abolition of corporal punishment had been building steadily from the late 1950s through the early 1960s, the Scottish Office records reveal. In 1956, the SED was responding to concern that the European Commission on Human Rights might outlaw the whipping of children.

In 1960, John Maclay, the Conservative Scottish secretary of state, was told by English industrialists, keen to expand north of the border, that Scottish classrooms were governed by an atmosphere of "fear and repression" and that the strap was being used to compensate for educational shortcomings.

The government maintained it was being phased out but that discipline was a matter largely for local authorities and schools. However, Glasgow University education department wrote privately to the SED in 1963 to complain that parents were telling them that seven and eight-year-olds were being "regularly strapped, often for alleged shortcomings in school work".

In 1964, the issue came to the fore after the headteacher of Lennoxtown Public School was fined pound;10 at Stirling Sheriff Court for excessive punishment of an 11-year-old boy, who was said by the head to have dirty hands and knees and a dirty exercise book with dirty finger marks. He belted the boy eight times within two hours. On a charge of assaulting an eight-year-old boy by striking him on the back and buttocks with a leather strap he was found not guilty.

An EIS press statement complained that "teachers are deeply perturbed at the implications of this case which could have far-reaching repercussions on teacher-pupil relations and school discipline". More than a year later, in October 1965, the union agreed to phase out the strap.

The Daily Mail went to John Dick, a Fife saddler and ironmonger and maker of "Lochgelly leather", for an instant comment. "This is sad news for me, but I don't suppose it would put me out of business. It's only one of my sidelines," he said.

In the previous year, he had sold over 3,000 straps at 13 shillings (65p) each.

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