Free Presbyterian schools will soon be forbidden to use corporal punishment. Sue Learner reports
NORTHERN Ireland's fire-and-brimstone-preaching private schools are to be banned from beating pupils under new legislation.
Corporal punishment remains an option for teachers in seven schools run by the Rev Ian Paisley's Free Presbyterian church long after it was banned in England and Wales and in state schools in the province.
The church defends the practice, saying it is ordained in the Bible. But as the Northern Ireland assembly returns to business, planned legislation looks as if it will finally become law.
To rub salt into the church's wounds, the instigator of the law is the province's education minister - Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness.
Corporal punishment has been banned in all schools in England since the 1996 Education Act. In Northern Ireland it was banned in state schools in 1986 but continued to be legal in private schools under the province's separate legal system.
A spokeswoman for the education department said legislation would be introduced "at the first opportunity". The prospect has prompted a furious response from the Rev Ivan Foster, who founded the church's schools in the 1980s with his wife, Ann. On the church's website magazine, The Burning Bush, he defends corporal punishment as ordained by God.
Quoting Proverbs ("Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell"), he asks: "Was God wrong ... was He advocating cruelty?" Proverbs is also the source of the saying, "Spare the rod and spoil the child."
The Rev Foster said: "We don't actually have to use corporal punishment that often but we believe very strongly that schools should have the right to physically punish a child."
The schools teach 350 children aged four to 18, in spartan surroundings. Prayer and bible study are at the core of the timetable and pupils are told that Darwin was wrong.
Each school is run by its local church congregation. Parents pay an annual fee of pound;275 for the first child and less for siblings attending the same school.
Meanwhile, in England, 40 Christian independent schools have asked the High Court in London for the right to smack their pupils on the grounds that "the rod of correction imparts wisdom".
Their spokesman, Philip Williamson, head of the Christian Fellowship schools in Liverpool is seeking a judicial review of the Government's ruling that all corporal punishment in schools is unlawful.