Whipped up but with nowhere to go

15th November 1996 at 00:00
The notion of the Prime Minister whipping his ministers into opposing the reintroduction of corporal punishment in schools is diverting. John Major has brought the nonsense on his own head even although he remains an abolitionist and ticked off his Education Secretary for raising the hare.

Mr Major is to blame because he has encouraged the search for education-related themes that can be turned to pre-election advantage. It was inevitable that someone would come up with the idea of caning. After all, we are talking about English education in the setting of a Parliament of public-school men in whom memories of their own beatings produce strange feelings.

Given the opportunity to play on hang 'em and flog 'em prejudices and to make capital out of the recent reports of pupil indiscipline, some Tory MPs were unlikely to resist the temptation to show their worst side. They know that a Commons debate on corporal punishment is not going to put the clock back. If they are honest, they also know that canings (and in Scotland, beltings) did not produce good classroom behaviour. The best response to their misguided philosophy of "it didn't do me any harm" is for the debate to produce a huge majority against the notion and to ensure that it is not raised again.

Even teachers who are loudest in their complaints about discipline problems do not envisage a return to corporal punishment. Nor do today's parents of schoolchildren. The controversy has been artificially stimulated, and Gillian Shephard, whom most teachers south of the border regarded as enlightened compared to her immediate predecessors at the Department for Education and Employment, has allowed her customary common sense to desert her. As a member of the Government that proclaims the impossibility of differentiating between a kitchen knife and a brutal weapon, she ought to be asked to frame the legislation which would define the licensed domain for, and types of, corporal punishment.

She ought also to reflect that Michael Howard's fate at the hands of the English judiciary in case after case would be nothing compared with the problems she would cause herself at the European Court of Human Rights, whose intervention more than a decade ago ensured the belated end of corporal punishment in this country.

Most indiscipline in schools is niggling and distracting. It upsets teachers and the majority of pupils who want to work. It does not deserve and would not be cured by corporal punishment. The small minority of pupils whose behaviour is intolerable cannot be beaten into submission, or if they were, their behaviour in later life would show how wrong was the recipe. Finding the right answer to discipline problems remains a challenge to researchers and practitioners alike. There is no single solution, only a variety of strategies, some of which have featured in The TES Scotland.

The one surety is that election-conscious MPs are least likely to stumble on any of the credible answers.

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