Nation of shopkeepers that knows how to flog;Corporal punishment;Millennium edition

31st December 1999 at 00:00
The British have always been surprisingly keen to make a rod for their own backs, reports Janette Wolf.

In France they call it le vice anglais; in the Daily Telegraph, they regarded its passing with moist-eyed nostalgia ("The younger generation will now never know the advantages of blotting paper over the silk handkerchief stuffed down the pants ... Goodbye, whacker old thing").

The British have had a peculiar - some would say perverse -attachment to corporal punishment for most of the century. Years after the rest of the world dropped it as a barbarous practice, we continued to beat children with a variety of eye-watering implements.

Corporal punishment was enshrined in British law in 1860 when Chief Justice Cockburn had to establish an acceptable level of punishment, a sort of corporal swingometer, if you like.

When faced with a teacher who had taken his disciplinary duties a little too far and whose dead pupil gave lie to the claim "this will hurt me more than it hurts you", Justice Cockburn said that the force must be "moderate" and "reasonable".

Ever since, generations of children have known that it was hardly ever either, with the practice immortalised in all its crude brutality in Tom Brown's School Days, the Billy Bunter stories and perhaps most memorably by Dickens. His switch-wielding psychopath, Wackford Squeers, tormented the poor inmates of Dotheboys Hall until Nicholas Nickleby exacted revenge.

The dubious legal justification for flogging children "to correct what is evil" was also used with more muscular vigour elsewhere. Birching prisoners was common practice until 1948, while disobedient naval ratings were routinely flogged until 1957.

Here at The TES, leader writers voiced their condemnation back in 1947, but it was not to disappear from state schools until the 1986 Education Act.

The lucky few, whose parents paid for their education, could still enjoy the bracing, and no doubt character-forming, effect of the full panoply of belts, paddles, whips and canes until September 1999, when corporal punishment was finally made illegal by the School Standards and Framework Act. But that is not the end of the matter.

Horrified that the ban will lead to a complete breakdown in social order, several religious schools have appealed to the European Court of Human Rights for an immediate reinstatement.

As other forms of classroom violence have escalated, teachers have now been given powers to use physical force against any unruly pupils. While not requiring the use of a whippy implement of any description, they can hold, push or pull with "reasonable" force.

It may not be in the same league as the "reasonable" force laid down by Chief Justice Cockburn but it's not that far away, either.

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