Survey whips up debate on caning

10th October 2008 at 01:00
TV and newspaper pundits, nationally and internationally, reported on TES findings that a fifth of teachers want corporal punishment back

To beat or not to beat? That is the question teachers and their former pupils around the world are debating this week. A TES survey of 6,162 teachers had last week found that one in five backed the return of the cane. They called for schools to be able to use corporal punishment "in extreme cases".

Our findings tapped into the global public conscience.

In fact, the story was followed up by journalists from Ireland to India reporting that 20.3 per cent of teachers did not advocate sparing the rod.

In this country it vied for air-time with the credit crunch and Gordon Brown's political woes on BBC Radio 4's Today. ITN even went with the line "Caning; Back on the education agenda."

And, of course, it was seized on by tabloid headline writers with particular delight. "A caning for classroom yobs?" the Daily Express asked, claiming that teachers "believe corporal punishment is the most effective measure for bringing yob pupils to heel".

Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Peter Hitchens also saw the survey's findings as "a cry of despair from those who daily endure the howling, indisciplined chaos that now infects so many schools." He added that caning children ensured that they did not end up "a lost cause, feral and beyond control".

By contrast, a commentator in The Guardian pointed out that many children who misbehave at school are responding to physical abuse at home. "Why would you feel able to confide in a teacher who is just as likely and able to turn violent against you?" she said. "If every adult you know is allowed to hurt you, who can you trust?"

Teachers writing on The TES online staffroom were similarly divided. One contributor wrote: "If behaviour management worked, we wouldn't be having this debate. I have been on several courses in the past, but there are children who are beyond my control, despite my best efforts.

"These children, if not checked in their youth, will not be employable. We are doing them no favours."

But others disagreed that the cane would have the desired effect. "When I was at school in the 1970s, there were some children who were regularly belted, and it made no difference at all to how they turned out," one contributor said.

"I knew some excellent teachers who never resorted to this. Then there was a scary number of halfwit teachers who regularly lost the plot and belted a whole class for one child's behaviour."

Institutional violence, many contributors believed, should never be sanctioned. "Violence to control children begins with a slipper in nursery and ends with children being buried under a concrete floor," one teacher wrote.

"I don't know about you, but I don't want to be placed anywhere on that continuum."

Jacob Middleton, an historian at Birkbeck College in London, claims that such debates are not new. Corporal punishment has been a contentious issue since 1570, when the first page of the first-ever English-language book on education questioned whether it was acceptable to beat pupils. But it was not until more than 400 years later, in 1987, that the use of the cane was abolished in state schools.

This was extended to the independent sector in 1998.

"People call in the abstract for the return of disciplinary values," said Mr Middleton. "But in practice, who does the punishing? It's the headteachers. But they don't necessarily have direct contact with the children, so they are compelled to support teachers' judgments.

"That renders them little more than a flogging assistant or a whipping machine." And, he points out, memories of an era when pupils were beaten into perfect behaviour are inevitably rose-tinted.

"Pupils certainly weren't better behaved," he said. "They used to rap the teachers in return. And teachers could expect to be assaulted by parents an average of six times a year. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, this was mostly about corporal punishment."

In fact, corporal punishment often created an atmosphere of fear, rather than respect.

James Pinder, a 77-year-old retired physics teacher from Tameside, used the cane only twice in a career spanning 30 years.

The first time was to punish three truants; the second was for two boys who pretended to run over a frightened younger pupil with a lawn mower.

"I was actually opposed to corporal punishment," he said. "Though the kids didn't know I was. It was there as a deterrent.

"But it didn't create respect. It created resentment. If pupils had respect for you, they would do what you said, anyway."

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