Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Corporal Punishment got a Dishonourable Discharge - and not Without Good Reason

An interesting and perhaps surprising statistic emerged in a poll that was conducted last week regarding discipline in our education system. By a majority of 49% to 45%, those who answered expressed support for some form of corporal punishment to be restored as an option for teachers in Uk schools (presumably the other 6% were undecided). As this throws the issue under a spotlight of sorts, I'm here to argue the case against the restoration of canes, birches and other weapons as forms of discipline. James Garry of Politics on Toast fame -  http://politicsontoast.com/ has kindly agreed to put forward the opposing case on these pages in the near future.

Other results from this poll told me that things were a whole lot worse in the British education system than I first thought. Having left what was a pretty miserable experience behind, my insight into the subject, like that of many, has been through a combination of anecdotes from teachers I have known and reports of classroom episodes that have made their way into the printed, spoken or broadcast media. When tales of students fighting or hurling chairs at their teachers become too frequent to be discarded as a freak occurrence or one-off, the general perception grows that things have undeniably taken a turn for the worse.

However, this bunny always tempered this with a gentle reminder to himself that 'most kids aren't like that - it's just that the vast majority who are generally well-behaved and pass through education in an uneventful fashion are never going to make the newspapers or television'. I still believe this analysis to be fundamentally correct, but there is a statistic from a separate poll on the same subject which suggests that even kids who are possessed of natural mischief without being 'bad' as such have drawn the line.

While 93 per cent of teachers seeking greater powers to impose classroom discipline is an unsurprising figure, the fact that 68 per cent of pupils are calling for exactly the same thing certainly is. My immediate thought was a rather juvenile one - an episode of the Simpsons, where Principal Skinner is sacked from his job at the Elementary school and replaced by cute, cuddly, do-gooding Ned Flanders. The school rapidly disintegrates into mayhem, with Ned explaining to Homer and Marge that his 'kid gloves' approach was a response to the unwelcome 'tough love' of his father. This flashback to the 'harsh discipline' imposed on young Flanders is utterly priceless:-

The serious point is:- Springfield Elementary descends into such unchallenged chaos that even Bart recognises the fun has gone out of it, so he instigates a plan to have Flanders sacked and Skinner re-instated. This bunny can just about recall enough of his childhood to remember that as a general rule, kids are loathe to giving adults greater authority over their lives - so for more than two thirds of them to come out in favour of more power for teachers to impose discipline in schools, something must be dreadfully wrong. A slice of this 68 per cent will of course be those mischief-free students who simply wish to bury their heads in books and get something resembling an education from the whole thing - and good luck to them.

What of the rest? Has it gone too far and become too easy, as Bart ultimately realised? I never thought I'd be referring to the Simpsons in a serious piece of writing, so either a) this bunny is finally going mad or b) our schools really have degenerated into something resembling a cartoon. Or possibly both.

So we're in a mess, the dynamics of which we should probably explore in a separate discussion. It's a quite frequent occurrence that when presented with what might be a complicated set of problems, people are tempted by the presentation of what appears to be a swift and simple solution - in this case, dragging 'the big stick' out of retirement and inflicting it on misbehaving children (I'm not lumping James into this category by the way as I'm sure he would regard this as only one part of any answer). However, there are three main angles from which I seek to explain why support for corporal punishment is deeply misguided - the humane element, assumptions that it makes about 'virtuous' figures of authority and the not insignificant question of whether or not it would have the desired effect in the 21st century.

The banning of corporal punishment in Uk schools was instigated by that most dubious of institutions, the European Court of Human Rights, in 1984. I'm no fan of the ECHR, seeing it as one of several very good reasons in favour of this country withdrawing from the European Union. Of course it would have been a far more satisfactory outcome had this, as with many other changes to our law, been dealt with solely on these shores. As it is, we're left with the view of the ECHR that corporal punishment has no place in schools on the basis that it is 'inhumane' and 'degrading'. My opponents may not have much issue with these words, seeing as the whole thing is supposed to be humiliating/degrading and bloody hurt - hey, it might make the little shit think again next time he's presented with an opportunity to fight, steal or vandalise?

There are, however, several holes in this line of argument. First up, many of us are uncomfortable at the prospect of 'degrading' other people and somewhat squeamish about the thought of canes or birches being used to inflict serious short to mid term pain on them. I'm sure that this bunny is far from alone in not wishing to hear or see anything of the sort, and you're going to come across senior teachers who share that sense of discomfort about the use of force. We're then faced with a choice between either compelling adults to use canes/birches on children against their will, or operating a two-tier system, where corporal punishment operates in some schools but not others. The first scenario sounds nothing less than horrific, while the second would no doubt cause great resentment amongst those kids who 'drew the short straw'.

There are other significant questions, such as - what does corporal punishment teach children on the issue of conflict resolution? Throughout our lives, we are all going to encounter 'difficult' individuals, be they at work, in our day-to-day dealings with people, even on the blogosphere. Most of us understand that resorting to violence is neither a smart move nor an acceptable one, and that anger, frustration or disappointment are not valid excuses for that initiation of force. Wielding a cane or birch and causing physical injury to resolve classroom conflict flies directly in the face of this lesson that we would wish to teach young people, and we need to be very careful about the signals that we are sending as a society.

While corporal punishment has been demonstrated to have some success with 'good kids', several studies have concluded that it can also have a counter-productive effect on those at risk of 'going off the rails' - ie the children that it would in reality be most seeking to 'correct'. When an individual is lacking direction, attempts to physically discipline them may unwittingly sow the seed of 'violence as a solution' in troubled minds. The dreaded law of unintended consequences knows no bounds - after all, it can't be easy for a headteacher to birch seven shades out of a teenager for fighting, then explain to him why violence is so terribly wrong...

The existence of corporal punishment also devalues other, more subtle techniques that could present more lasting consequences to those who misbehave. Belt buckle against flesh was a quite dreadful feeling with which I became familiar when growing up (and deeply resent to this day - does that count as an 'emotional stake' in the issue? I'm genuinely unsure), but the deprivation of privileges such as my allowance and being 'grounded' for a period of time undeniably had a more profound effect on this bunny than any thwacking did as soon as the pain disappeared and/or bruising healed. One of the many problems that comes with the use of force as discipline is that to stand any chance at all of working within a large institution, it must be applied consistently, yet human nature tells us that some individuals respond far better to it than others.

To suggest that 'big adults hitting small children' constitutes a form of bullying might be going too far, but it certainly re-enforces the notion that the bigger, meaner, more intimidating individual is always right, and just with the 'lessons' regarding violence, this is not a sensible message to be sending out to young people. In truth, teachers are just a cross-section of society, and as a breed are no more or less likely to abuse any power given to them, or pursue a personal vendetta against someone they don't like than anyone else. Not every caning in the past was fair, and this bunny is naturally suspicious about granting powers to cause physical harm that work on the assumption that authority is automatically virtuous.

In short, it isn't - in fact like all authority, it attracts some of the worst and most inept people one could imagine. Some teachers, in case one has not already noticed, positively despise children, and should really have not been allowed into the profession. These are precisely the types who would actually quite enjoy the prospect of caning or birching a misguided youth (as many used to, unfortunate as that is), and by definition are the last people one should entrust with the power to do so. Something I noticed during my own time at high school in the 1990s and appears to have continued since is an alarming decline in teaching standards across the board. Without for a second denying that the Uk possesses more than its share of hell-raisers, why when the conversation turns to school discipline does 100% of the focus invariably fall on pupils?

The apparent death of a certain type of guiding hand, who could command a classroom without ranting or becoming hysterical, surely has far more to do with the current state of affairs than has previously been acknowledged? If schools were private companies, paid solely on results, how many teachers would actually keep their jobs? Sometimes it's easy to blame children for everything, but this bunny honestly believes it not to be as simple as that - the presence of too many crap teachers has contributed much to the problems that our schools face, and every time we focus solely on the unruly kids who don't take them seriously, the inept and half-hearted get a free pass. Until we find the stomach to really challenge one of our 'sacred' professions, we will only stand a chance of tackling half of the problem.

Something that supporters of canes/birches may also have neglected to think about is the ripple effect that it would have throughout education and wider society. I remember one teacher at my school who clearly failed to understand that the heyday of brutality against kids was over - one of his favourite tricks was (quite skillfully) spotting a pupil 'illegally' running through a corridor then, as he approached, grabbing the miscreant by the collar and pinning him against the wall - quite how he kept his job is beyond me, but keep it he did. The thought of this kind of 'open house' on physical assaults against pupils is deeply unsettling, yet once you break the taboo that says 'teacher violence is wrong', is allowing this sort of thing not the next logical step?

Schools could become very sombre and intimidating places rather quickly once this taboo is broken, and as somebody who seeks a happy medium between the do-gooder anarchy that dominates at the moment and the opposite extreme, the prospect of 'boot camps that also educate' is one that worries this bunny immensely. Presumably, those favouring the use of corporal punishment as discipline in schools would grant the same privilege to the legal guardians of the child? I ask because, while I wouldn't wish to criminalise the application of a light smack to a child who fails to (for example) look before crossing the road, granting bad parents who take out personal frustrations on their kids the legal use of a weapon like a birch is no more than state-sponsored child abuse.

Would corporal punishment have sufficient deterrent value to make it work? Perhaps were it applied consistently across every school in the Uk it would have a fighting chance of making some kids think twice before misbehaving. However, many senior teachers would simply refuse to operate it as a punishment, which seriously undermines its effect - and that's before we get to the ground I covered earlier regarding the price paid for these dubious benefits. Moreover, never underestimate the creative ability of a hell-raiser to turn a punishment into a badge of honour. Remember how ASBOs became status symbols that served as an indicator that a misguided youth had 'made it?'. What is often forgotten is that the shame and stigma of being caned was probably more important in its previous role as a (fairly successful) punishment in schools than the physical pain itself - you've heard the line that went 'you didn't tell your dad you'd been caned in case he hit you again'.

With the punishment regarded as a badge of honour or rite of passage by those on the receiving end, and neither parent working or generally giving a shit about much, could that shame and stigma be re-created in 21st century Britain? I very much doubt it.

There's so much we can do to get the ineptitude out of our teaching profession, make the curriculum more relevant to pupils and apply punishments to their misdemeanours, then actually follow them through. Assault on a teacher or anyone for that matter is a criminal offence, and kids need to understand that when they pick fights with adults, they run the risk of adult consequences. This bunny firmly believes in the right to defend oneself when presented with a physical threat, be that through retaliation or redress from the courts (if this means changes in the law then no argument from here). The initiation of violence against another human being is always wrong, and teaching this lesson clearly and unequivocally to our young people can only help us as a society - so put that big stick down, it has no business here. Take care and I'll catch you soon.


  1. As usual we can rely on James Garry to give the opposite argument to anything sensible. Daz, do you ever think that you are giving him too much oxygen? At this rate he may end up Editor of the Daily Hate.

  2. Hi MNN - thanks for responding (and agreeing by the looks of it).

    In fairness to James, while we come at social policy from very different angles, he's a fine writer - our debate on capital punishment was clearly compelling given the response it got on AnnaRac. Some of the credit for that has to go to my opponent, who put his case across well.

    Besides which, his dislike for the Tory Party is too obvious for a job at the Mail to ever materialise...

  3. Seriously though Daz, do we really need to hear someone trying to defend the other position? I'll try and save everyone some time;

    "I believe that to stop a child being naughty you have to hit them. I believe this because I am a total bastard. If they continue to be naughty, hit them again"

    We are already run by a bunch of authoritarian reactionaries. What more does he want?

  4. "Man Not Number": Politics works better when it is adversarial. Differences of opinion which are subjected to critique and debated make for a healthy society. I wouldn't deny the "oxygen" of publicity to someone who was a capable opponent but with whom I disagree. I wonder why you want to shut me up seeing as you are firmly against authoritarianism.

    If I am such a bad person and I belong to the lunatic fringe, then you have nothing to fear from my views.

    I must also reject the label of authoritarian and the attribution of the above quotation to me. This is an underhand smear. Why try to stifle the debate before it has begun?

  5. No underhand smear intended, it was a direct accusation. You want the power of the state to crack down on all behaviour that you find reprehensible. There are already enough plastic libertarian blogs turning out authoritarian diatribe, I just thought that I might get a bit of peace here.

  6. Be very careful when you make accusations.

    I don't want the state to crack down on all behaviour I find reprehensible. There are many forms of behaviour that I dislike that I wouldn't expect the state to concern itself with.

    I hardly think my occasional contribution to this site should cause you such disquiet.

    And I hardly think exposure to the odd alternative view is that awful.

    By the way, can you name some libertarian blogs turning out authoritarian diatribe?

  7. James,

    Whilst I disagree wholeheartedly with you view on caning, I defend absolutely your right to express a contrary opinion on this forum. I don't understand how people can call themselves libertarian when they act like thought police.

    Anyone who disagrees with that can suck my cock!

  8. I fear I may have to respectfully disagree with you here.

    "...the deprivation of privileges such as my allowance and being 'grounded' for a period of time undeniably had a more profound effect on this bunny than any thwacking did as soon as the pain disappeared and/or bruising healed."

    But how was the grounding enforced? Did you ever try to sneak out? I know I did, and when I got caught, I got a smack. The only way that a grounding can be enforced is by threat of further sanctions if it is violated, usually including some measure of violence.

    Withdrawl of pocket money is something else, and also a very valuable method in behaviour reinforcement, but what do you do when the pocket money is already stopped?

    I think that pain has a place in raising a child. This may make me an evil two headed monster, but I think there are good arguments in favour of corporal punishment. Pain is natures way of teaching us . If you put your hand in a fire, it hurts, so you know not to do it again. Wrap a child in cotton wool and keep it from all fires, and there's a good chance he or she will get burned in later life, as they won't lnow to avoid fire.Our brains are hard-wired to learn from pain, and to avoid repeating behaviours that lead to it.

    If you have a puppy that chews the carpet, do you dit it down and explain that the carpet cost a lot of money, and that you'd rather he not destroy it, or do you give them a little smack? Guess which method works best? And the point is that it works by stopping the dog from doing it again, - they learn that chewing the carpets leads to poain, so they don't chew the carpets. Kids are the same.

    Now that being said, I think pain can be a good thing for educating, but not torture. There's a fine line between the two, and for the vast majority of offences a clip around the ear should be ample. Caning should be reduced to an absolute last resort, and used only on kids where every other method of attempting to teach them has failed.

    In my opinion, anyway...

  9. Apologies for typos - written on a phone, as work block commenting :S

  10. No issue at all Rational - thanks for contributing. My point was that some people clearly respond better to different types of punishment, yet for canes etc... to have any chance of 'working' it must be consistent and disregard the nature of the offender.

    This is likely to do as much harm as any good it achieves, possibly more so.