Soft on teachers, soft on the belt

8th January 1999 at 00:00
Scottish Office records of 30 years ago show how ministers ducked banning the tawse, reports David Henderson

THE Labour government's reluctance in the late 1960s to upset teachers and intervene in classroom practice ensured the belt survived for a further 15 years.

Pressure was building throughout the sixties for an outright ban but Scottish Education Department papers, released under the 30-year rule, show ministers were reluctant to legislate. Instead, they backed a consensual approach towards gradual elimination of corporal punishment.

The Liaison Committee on Educational Matters, an umbrella group of unions, headteachers, employers and civil servants, took more than two years to produce a code of practice on phasing out corporal punishment. Published in February 1968, the code recommended the belt only as a last resort and advocated alternative sanctions. Three years earlier, a primary school memorandum suggested the belt should not be needed.

But the Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association in 1967 advised civil servants involved in drafting the code that teachers would not be prepared to eliminate the belt "until a proved alternative is forthcoming".

Nevertheless, a spokesman said the code was an "extremely handy guide for teachers" and would "act as a deterrent to anyone inclined to be over-severe in the administration of corporal punishment".

The Scottish Schoolmasters' Association, commented: "Most of the points are already followed by teachers anyway. And I would disagree with the mollycoddling of girls."

The TES Scotland attacked the outcome. "The code of practice will be seen by teachers who have dispensed with corporal punishment as licence to beat. Those who use and indeed rely on this sanction as the basis of their discipline, will be confirmed in their practice," it said.

The Glasgow Herald, in an editorial, agreed. "The code contains little that is new and nothing that is enlightening," it stated.

The code said the belt should not be used for poor class performance, truancy or lateness, or in infant classes. It should only be used following clear warnings and only given by striking the palm of the pupil's hand. Girls should be exempt in secondary school.

"Where used, corporal punishment should be used as a last resort, and should be directed to punishment of the wrong-doer and to securing the conditions necessary for order in the school and for work in the classroom."

But whipping boys in approved school was strongly supported by heads and school managers in the late sixties. Bruce Millan, the Education Minister, sought to bring approved schools into line with the code of practice and encountered strong resistance.

Corporal punishment was used in Scotland 10 times as often as in English approved schools. Heads had mostly stalled following a Scottish Office circular in 1967.

"Over-hasty withdrawal may lead to a general breakdown of discipline and force the acceptance of standards that would not be accepted at home or day school," the Approved Schools Association (Scotland) advised in January 1968.

Private letters between psychologists who worked in approved schools and HMI tell a different tale. Max Paterson wrote to John McPherson, HMI responsible for approved schools, about the true picture of beatings.

"On one visit to another school, I was told by the headmaster as a 'joke' that a child, an 11-year-old, bent over the desk to receive his punishment, had soiled himself after two strokes. The child had panicked, jumped and run around the room. The head said, 'you should have seen the job I had before I caught him to give him the rest'."

The school was Dr Guthrie's Boys' in Edinburgh.

Punishment books in approved schools did not reflect the actual number of beatings or that some pupils were held down, Mr Paterson wrote. He urged ministers to bring in an immediate ban on belting on the buttocks which he described as "vicious in the realm of punishment or of attitude". It also had sexual undertones.

Heads and managers largely defended continued beatings. The head of St Andrew's School, Rhu, said corporal punishment "should be to the eventual benefit of the boy". In 1967, 28 boys were belted for violence towards each other and 38 for insolence.

Thirteen absconders enjoyed the benefits of the tawse. "In each of these, the application of corporal punishment was meant as a therapeutic aid," the head said.

Thomas Hand, head at Balrossie School, Glasgow, wrote: "When it has been decided that corporal punishment is the most appropriate treatment for a serious offence and when strokes are administered on the posterior it is surely right to assume that it is intended that the punishment in this case should be painful to the recipient.

"This is not the case when administered over corduroy trousers and underpants with a light tawse. It is considered that when the occasion demands it, special clothing should be worn to produce the desired effect. Alternatively, a heavier type of tawse should be used."

Mr Hand added: "The deterrent value to others of corporal punishment is increased when witnessed by a group and has probably more effect on the recipient when he is dealt with before his fellows."

He said beatings had "a corrective and deterrent" effect on certain individuals. A study had shown that most boys believed there was insufficient use of corporal punishment. No grudges were borne against the administrators of punishment, he added.

J Hill, head of Balgowan School, Dundee, wrote: "We have been trying since 1959 to phase out the belt. It is inevitable with modern thinking, modern methods of treatment - the accent constantly on understanding the individual child - that the future will see approved schools managed well without corporal punishment. I look forward to that day. But not in 1968."

Leader, page 18

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