Punishment: you just can't whack it

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Old-style teachers thought pupils saw discipline as being fair - they didn't. Adi Bloom reports
Old-style teachers thought pupils saw discipline as being fair - they didn't. Adi Bloom reports

It is a vital teaching tool - or it is the instrument of the sadist wielding power over the weak.

How pupils view school punishment depends greatly on how it is administered, according to Jacob Middleton, an historian at Birkbeck College, London.

Mr Middleton has been researching children's views of punishment, from caning to lines, in the 19th and 20th centuries.

He found that most teachers believed punishment formed part of an implicit contract with pupils. If pupils broke their contract and misbehaved, teachers were entitled to punish them.

As a result, teachers assumed that children would accept the fairness of any sanction.

Mr Middleton said: "The healthy boy was expected, if not to enjoy (corporal) punishments, then to appreciate them, and prefer them to lines and maps and all the dreary substitutes."

This was occasionally the case. When education was seen as a privilege, children were more forgiving of its excesses.

Mr Middleton cites one writer who recalls that he almost enjoyed "in a masochistic way" any punishment, including a beating that left him physically scarred.

But most schoolchildren disagreed. One 20th-century writer describes the teacher who beat him with a ruler as "Miss Enemy". Another notes that "anger and resentment" were common.

Occasionally, such resentment erupted. The simplest way for children to resist punishment was by refusing to co-operate with the teacher. Others were less subtle. One 19th-century teacher's attempted punishment resulted in a fist-fight, ending with the pupil sitting victorious on his chest.

Injustice was particularly resented. Corporal punishment, for example, was intended as a last resort, and it was considered a mistake to punish a child for poor-quality work or lack of ability. "However," said Mr Middleton, "such advice was open to interpretation."

Excessive use also undermined the efficacy of punishment. Often pupils felt they were being treated as offenders as soon as they entered the school gates.

The best they could do, therefore, was to justify this reputation. Mr Middleton said: "Once punishment was no longer perceived as fair, children felt no particular obligation to behave."

In many cases, it was more effective to substitute actual punishment with the threat of it. One late Victorian writer tells of a disciplinarian head who constantly threatened pupils with punishment for misdemeanours. Despite this - or perhaps as a consequence - the writer did not witness a single incidence of corporal punishment.

Pupils tended to prefer such an approach. Many felt that actual punishment had no lasting impact on behaviour.

"Most of all, corporal punishment taught children to dislike their teachers," said Mr Middleton.

"This animosity could be deeply personal, with some children believing that they had been singled out for the prolonged hostility of a teacher for no apparent reason."

Others plotted detailed acts of revenge against their teachers, or harboured anger into their old age.

"'It is a mistake,' noted one educationist, 'to think punishment a substitute for teaching,'" Mr Middleton writes. "Yet for many children educated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, education and punishment would remain inherently linked."

- 'The Experience of Corporal Punishment in Schools, 1890-1940', by Jacob Middleton.


James Roberts, 9, said: "Once, I forgot my PE kit, so I had to do lines. I had to write: 'I must bring my PE kit at all times.' I felt quite upset, and it hurt my wrist having to write lots of pages. After that, I said 'sorry' to my teacher.

"Punishment makes you behave better. If you didn't have punishment, everyone would be naughty. Then you'd fail your exams and wouldn't go to college.

"It would be good if pupils could punish teachers sometimes - like for not telling you the answers, or for telling people off too much. We could give them lines and shout at them. But that would be a bad school because everyone would be shouting at each other all the time."

Aamir Nakhuda, 11, said: "I've been punished a few times, for talking in class when I was supposed to be listening. Sometimes I had to stay inside instead of going out to play, or do lines at lunchtime.

"Teachers are fair. If people are good most of the time, they punish them less than people who are naughty a lot. And they punish you so you can learn."

James and Aamir are pupils at Sherwood Primary in Preston.

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