Talk of the cane is just plain wacko

7th November 2008 at 00:00

So, should we cane them or not? There's certainly been much discussion about it recently. I don't really think we should even be asking ourselves the question. It's not going to happen - and, anyway, do we really want to revisit an era when adults were hitting children with bits of wood?

But I'd be the first to admit that there is a problem. I understand the despair felt by teachers who simply want to do what they're paid to do - teach - but face daily behavioural problems. And they often have to do battle with the parents of challenging children as well. Having a pop at the teacher is often a way of currying favour with the offspring they can't control at home.

Testing the boundaries is part of growing up. I did it, and so did you. When I look back at my childhood, I can remember my mother hitting me with a stick on only one occasion: I had lit a firework behind an elderly lady. A neighbour had seen me and reported back.

Another time, I set fire to the cardboard boxes behind Sainsbury's and my father took a bathbrush to my backside. I certainly bore no grudge. The name of the game was taking a chance, and if you were caught you were walloped. But at least the punishments were balanced by the loving environment I was raised in.

Children who constantly behave very badly today are over-indulged or come from chaotic homes where parental partners are swapped like tokens. Caning them in school would solve nothing. Last year, a difficult girl in our Year 6 was repeatedly told by her mother that she would prefer an abortion to "having any more like her". Eventually, the child was packed off to live with her father, who didn't really want her either. I cannot imagine the level of desperation she must have felt.

The right school environment is utterly crucial to strong and successful child development. This morning, I visited all the classes in my school - something I do regularly. Every child in every class was absorbed and interested. Every teacher smiled as I walked in.

This is no accident. Over the years, I've accumulated a group of outstanding teachers who love children, understand how to enthuse them, and thoroughly enjoy their work. So it follows that the behaviour in our school is extremely good, whatever the home circumstances. We've never excluded anybody, even though we are in an area of high crime and extreme social deprivation.

But that doesn't mean we don't have our moments. Children who have attended several other schools, been a nuisance and then transferred to us are often exceptionally challenging, but it's fascinating to watch how they change as they settle in and take advantage of everything we offer. More than ever these days, learning has to be a positive and enjoyable experience, but in a secure environment with very clearly defined behaviour boundaries.

Last week, one of my infant teachers was ill, and a supply taught the class. She was irritable, and the work she'd planned was tedious. After two days, the classroom was becoming a mess, two children had been fighting and boundaries had been well and truly overstepped. How very easily this happens. Had it continued for a fortnight, the class could have been out of control. In schools where behaviour is constantly poor, there is invariably weak and ineffective leadership, resulting in low morale and a high staff turnover.

Making school an exciting place where children want to be is essential. Then we won't have to talk about getting canes out of the cupboard.

Mike Kent is headteacher of Comber Grove Primary in Camberwell, south London.

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