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Education (Corporal Punishment)

Volume 436: debated on Thursday 24 April 1947

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [ Mr. Michael Stewart.]

11.14 p.m.

The question of corporal punishment of children in State schools is one of very great interest, and is causing growing opposition in almost every direction. Now that we are commencing a new era in education, when a new Act has recently come into force, the school age has been raised, we are providing meals and milk for our school children, and building many new schools, it is a suitable opportunity to consider a subject which vitally affects the health and well-being of all children in the State schools. Now that we have a sympathetic Minister to respond on this subject and one who is, I think, most responsive and helpful to the whole problem of children, I hope that some definite action will be taken on the question of the abolition of corporal punishment of children in schools.

One must make clear what is meant by and carefully discriminate between punishment and prevention. Punishment is a deliberate action causing added and intentional suffering to the child. No one can object to, the prevention of children injuring or harming themselves or other children, or damaging property. No one would object to any reasonable step taken for this purpose. But any additional suffering inflicted upon the child as punishment seems to me to be unjustifiable. We should prevent it with all the means in our power. Such punishment merely terrorises and demoralises a child. It does nothing to make a bad child into a good child. It does not correct any fault, or prevent other children from committing the same fault. It is strongly objected to by parents who have brought them up in their own homes without any such degrading and demoralising punishment. It is the parents, in the main, who object to the infliction of punishment in schools, and the parents today have no choice about the school to which they will send their children. Theoretically they have, but practically they have not. Therefore, they have no jurisdiction over the teacher, who may inflict corporal punishment which is quite contrary to the wishes of the parents. Punishment may be inflicted without any reason being given to the child, without any inquiry regarding the child's health or whether the child deserves the punishment, or even informing the parent or guardian. Everything may be done behind closed doors and in secret. There is no evidence that all cases of punishment are recorded, as they should be, in the punishments book, or that there are not serious and grave abuses in such punishment which are unknown, and records show that children have received considerable harm.

These punishments are resented by many of the teachers themselves, although I am aware that on such a controversial subject as this there must be some conflicting views. Where punishment has been abandoned, as in many private schools, discipline has not deteriorated, but, in many cases, has materially improved. I shall, in a few moments, quote examples to justify this claim. It is an antiquated and pernicious system which should not have been allowed to continue for so long. The whole point is, should our children be brought up in an atmosphere of tyranny to suffer continuous fear, or in more reasonable conditions of reason and understanding? Some responsibility, however, must be placed on parents and steps taken to abolish corporal punishment in the homes at the same time as it is abolished in schools. Only by such a co-ordinated control can the best interests of the child be safeguarded.

I have to ask the hon. Member whether he has any means in mind by which he proposes to do this, other than by statutory regulation, or legislation? We cannot on the Adjournment Motion discuss or propose legislation.

I am not proposing new legislation, but asking the Minister of Education to put into operation powers which he has already by regulation. They are powers already within his jurisdiction. I am not suggesting new legislation of any kind, and nothing is proposed, in what I have to say, which would necessitate legislation. There axe powers for abolishing corporal punishment under the jurisdiction of the Minister. He has full power, by administrative action, to take whatever steps I am recommending.

There is considerable evidence that many children have been seriously injured, and in some cases for life. Punishment is subject to very great abuses, as I have indicated. I shall give examples of injuries done through such abuses. Physically, the children's health may be temporarily, if not permanently, injured to a considerable extent. Psychologically, the effect on children is most detrimental. It always injures a child's character, demoralises and degrades the child, and causes terror and coarseness which can be avoided when the child is treated with kindness and understanding.

I would remind the Minister that, in the Curtis Report, which deals not with normal children, but with children with vicious intent—perhaps criminally-minded in many cases—there is a unanimous recommendation that all forms of corporal punishment should be abandoned in schools with which the Report is concerned. If it is recommended that it can be abolished, and we believe it can, in remand schools, surely steps ought to be taken in State schools for it to be abolished in respect of our own children. The only general regulation at present in vogue is one by which a record of the punishment has to be recorded in a punishment book. But it seems that such a regulation has very much the same effect as if burglars were asked to keep a record of their loot. Are these records properly kept and are they ever inspected? If they are inspected, is any action ever taken, or are any fresh instructions ever given to teachers?

I want to quote one or two illustrations. I raised a case during Question time in the House just prior to Christmas concerning a child of 12. She was dealt with by a teacher in such a brutal way that the case was brought before the court. The injury was very serious, but, unfortunately, when the case was before the court it was considered to have been properly administered, and no action was taken and no conviction recorded against the teacher in view of the fact that the teacher was, strictly speaking, within the bounds allowed by legislation. It was claimed that the teacher was acting within his rights to inflict the punishment he had, and nothing was done. I would like to quote one or two other cases of corporal punishment going on at the present time, because some people think that it is diminishing and is not widespread. I could give a large number of illustrations, but the time available will not permit of that. I would, however, state that the names of the schools, with dates of the punishments, and the names of the children could be obtained, and I will give them to the Minister if he so desires.

The first case is of a mixed junior school of nine classes, each averaging 45 pupils, under a headmaster. The case relates to one class. The average age was 10 years, and no pupil in the school was over 11. All canings were by the headmaster. The class teacher did not use corporal punishment, and did not send pupils to the headmaster. The discipline and work of the class were good so long as this teacher was with it. In spite of this, in 1942, some 20 children were caned on one morning. On another occasion, the headmaster burst into the room, called out four boys and, without a word, caned them. They never knew why. In February, 1943, another boy was given 12 cuts with a cane on the hands for speaking during a music lesson. Between September, 1943, and July, 1944, the records show that, in a class of forty-eight, 27 children were caned, many of them on a number of occasions. In the absence of the class teacher on 29th and 30th November, 1943, 24 children 10 of whom were girls, were caned by the headmaster for such offences as talking in "lines."

I have a number of illustrations which show that the practice is widespread, and that corporal punishment is being inflicted—unnecessarily, I claim—and what we want is not merely an amendment of the regulations under which corporal punishment is inflicted. We claim that no teacher should be allowed to have legal permission to inflict corporal punishment on any child at any time. At present, with the exception of the record of 'crimes" in the punishment book, no regulations are made by the Ministry themselves, and some local authorities leave it to the schools and the headmasters to make the conditions and regulations locally. But these vary to such an extent that it is extraordinary the variety of local conditions which are made. I have a list here of a number of them, showing, in some cases, that they make something like 20 or 25 different regulations governing the conditions under which a head or other teacher can inflict corporal punishment. In others, they make no regulations, but leave it to the head teacher concerned. Some make regulations that they shall have a bigger cane to inflict punishment on boys and insist on a smaller cane for girls. Why, I do not know, but, undoubtedly, this is done. In other cases, they say, in regard to girls, that it must be done with due regard to decency. The implication is that it can be inflicted on boys without regard to decency at all.…

It is true that the abolition of corporal punishment will not abolish all the abuses —the extraordinary abuses—that are incurred in regard to the matter, but it will not give the teacher a legal status for such unjustifiable tyranny.

I have in my hand a list of the countries where corporal punishment has been entirely abolished. It is therefore futile to say it cannot be abolished in this country. Some of the countries are of considerable importance, and there are no fewer than 25 of them. It is true that this information was collected prior to the war but I have no reason to suppose that there has been any change since. These are countries in which corporal punishment in all the State schools has been entirely abolished; Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, Czechoslovakia, Egypt, Esthonia, Finland, France, Irish Free State, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Rumania, Switzerland, Turkey, and most of the States of the United States of America, but not all of them. And in Russia, not only is it entirely illegal in all schools, but it is entirely illegal even for parents to punish their children by the infliction of corporal punishment. I have also in my hand a list of a very large number of schools which have abolished all forms of corporal punishment without any deterioration of discipline. I have a further list of a very large number of public spirited men and women who have indicated their dissatisfaction with any form of corporal punishment being continued. The list includes a large number of headmasters, a large number of teachers themselves and those who have spent their lives in studying this matter and given it every possible attention, people with names like Dr. Mallon, Ruth Fry, a previous Deputy-Speaker of the House of Commons, the Reverend James Barr, Viscountess Snowden, Dr. Wilks, Lady Pethick-Lawrence, and many others. The list is too long to quote in detail but I would like to give two examples of the kind of attitude they take on this subject. One is written from the Headmaster of Kingsmoor School, Glossop, who writes:
"Twenty-one years ago, Kingsmoor school was founded with experimental objectives. We believed that the needs of the changing world required spontaneity, adaptability and self control in its young people and that these qualities could best be obtained in an environment of co-operation, friendliness and trust. The school has never used either bribery in the shape of prizes and rewards, or fear in the shape of punishments and repression. All who have seen the school at work, including those responsible for its inspection, have not failed to observe the excellent order, self-discipline, and ease of general relationships which have resulted, and the experiment has proved beyond doubt that neither punishments nor prizes are necessary, or even desirable, in school education."
I would further quote from another individual who has had a greater influence perhaps on our present social order than anyone else—one of the pioneers of the Labour Party of which many of us are proud to be members. I refer to Bernard Shaw, who celebrated his 90th birthday a short time ago. He wrote me this birthday message:
"The difficulty is that there are not enough humane qualified teachers to go round, and classes are too large. Any callous fool with a cane in his or her hand can terrorise a child into learning the alphabet and the multiplication table; and that process does all the mischief. Are we prepared to say that it is better to leave a child unschooled than intimidated physically? I am. Fear compels children to learn, but also to hate learning and teachers. The qualified teacher can interest pupils and is respected by them and not disliked."
That really puts the case as we would claim that it could be put into operation, and as I hope it will be before long. But, before I sit down, I would quote a few grave abuses. I cannot give the details, but I will read out the headings of some cases which were brought into court and they will give some indication of the grave abuses which have arisen in recent times. The headings will be sufficient to show what widespread abuses and injuries do exist. The first is an allegation by a boy on crutches who had his thigh broken in school as a result of corporal punishment. Another boy had two operations after falling on his nose after an injury done by a teacher. A further boy came home with his face covered in blood. Another case was of a teacher who was fined when a boy said he was beaten with a whip handle. Another is a case of a child of seven years caned by a teacher in school because he forgot to bring his gas-mask with him. An orphan boy was caned and had to go to the police to seek their protection. Another lad, aged 12 years and nine months, received six strokes on thinly covered buttocks from a tawse, a thick leather, split into fingers at the end. Two inquiries took place many months after, but both decided that the punishment was in accordance with regulations.

So I might go on quoting a very large number of cases, but one of the grossest abuses of this pernicious system is that teachers are themselves protected by their own union, and I have a case where a teacher was actually convicted of inflicting unnecessary suffering. When the case was brought into court, the costs of the counsel for the prosecution and the defence, as well as the fines, amounted to over £100. Instead of the teacher who was convicted for this offence having to pay any of it, the whole was paid by the National Union of Teachers, and the teacher got off scotfree. On a conviction such as this a fine is quite inadequate and the teacher should have been dismissed with ignominy. Corporal punishment is wholly unjustifiable. The Minister has power to abolish it forthwith. I ask him to take such a step or in any case to institute a public inquiry and investigation into the whole matter. It is wholly evil. It has a disastrous effect upon our young people, and I hope he will take immediate steps for the complete abolition of all forms of corporal punishment on any school child at any time.

11.35 p.m.

I am certain the House will not doubt the sincerity of the hon. Member in drawing attention to this matter. I think hon. Members will know that this is a subject which has been under much discussion, but I would advise the Parliamentary Secretary—and I shall be brief because naturally I shall be very interested to hear his reply—to consider that at the very moment we are asked to introduce this there is a great increase in juvenile delinquency. We have also had the male parents away at the war and a reduced state of discipline amongst the children. We have also the records of borstals and the escapes from them. I was brought up in an educational establishment in which not only the headmaster, but the prefects were able to cane, and I remember that corporal punishment was given to me by both. I cannot remember that I ever suffered from it, and I took my revenge on my housemaster years later by making him my trustee and executor of my will. I think that that will show that I bore no ill will.

11.36 p.m.

I do not think that corporal punishment in schools is defensible. I believe it to be a method of keeping discipline which completely out of date. No reputable educationist who knows the problems of home environment, malnutrition, physical and mental defects, which affect the child's life and behaviour in school, can defend its continued use in schools. It is bad for the child, and it is very bad for the adult who administers it. I want my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Mr. Peter Freeman) to know that there is also a Ministry point of view. In saying that, I do not imply that officials are sadists eager to continue the use of caning and flogging. I merely say that, as a Ministry, it is important to move with public opinion. We do not advocate the use of corporal punishment, but public opinion has to be convinced that without it discipline can be maintained.

I suggest that a Department of State must pay attention to the opinions of those doing the day-to-day jobs. Shortly before the war representatives of teachers' organisations and local authorities were consulted about this problem and were not then in favour of abolition. Since that time we have had no further consultations, and, in reply to my hon. Friend, I should like to say that we intend, as I shall explain later, to consult the teachers and local authorities once more. Since 1938 educational thought and practice have advanced, and I think consultations and discussions are necessary again. Such discussions would be welcomed by all at the Ministry of Education by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education and by myself. May I for a moment explain the present position? Questions of school discipline have always been regarded as within the discretion of school authorities. The Department has, however, recognised corporal punishment as a form of correc- tion by its requirement that the school should keep a punishment book in which all cases of corporal punishment must be recorded. Further, in the old "Handbook of Suggestions", though we said,
"In the best schools there is now very little punishment at all, and corporal punishment may be altogether absent."
we also said that
"individual cases may occur where the active intervention of the head teacher is called for and stern measures may be justified."
Most local education authorities have punishment regulations. The London County Council, for example, provided that
"Corporal punishment shall not in any case be inflicted (save for grave moral offence) until other methods have been tried and failed."
In the L.C.C. regulations no master may cane a girl, and all cases of corporal punishment must be recorded in a punishment book.

May I now deal with the extent of corporal punishment in schools? We must not deduce from the cases my hon. Friend has described that corporal punishment is growing. On the contrary, we know that it was declining up to the war, and we believe the decline has continued during and since the war. There are about 5,000,000 children in the schools and some 200,000 teachers. However deplorable and exceedingly reprehensible the cases to which we have listened undoubtedly are, we must keep our sense of proportion. There are cases of abuse, but such cases are not typical. And I am bound to admit that I do not believe, human failings being what they are, that these cases would be eliminated automatically if corporal punishment were prohibited by Statute or regulation. No regulation or Statute is proof against stray abuse, and I understand that there are experienced people who hold that regulations forbidding the use of corporal punishment in schools would defeat their own object. Indeed, there were cases before the war in which it was found necessary to repeal regulations forbidding the use of corporal punishment because of difficulties that arose. My own view and that of my right hon. Friend is that the time has come for an expert inquiry into this vexed problem. It is not thought, however, that corporal punishment alone should be the subject of study, but rather that the wider questions of punishment and of reward in general merit the close attention of psychologists and educationists.

Accordingly, the Foundation for Educational Research are being asked if they will undertake an inquiry into the effects on the child of various forms of punishment and reward. The Foundation will be asked to advise the Minister in the light of modern scientific knowledge, on the most suitable forms of punishment and reward. We want to know the best ways whereby children can learn from their failures and misdemeanours. They are normally spurred on by successes. It is even more important that they should learn from failures and lapses in their behaviour. The fact that this inquiry is being made does not imply any reflection upon the teachers. The teachers alone can assess the circumstances and decide upon the appropriate treatment and a large measure of discretion is bound to be left to them. Some errors of judgment are, and always will be, made, as in all other fields of human relationships. By and large, however, the teachers carry out their responsible duties with an admirable spirit of sympathy, understanding, honour and equity. And the teachers will be the first to appreciate such assistance and guidance as can be given to them as the result of an authoritative investigation. While I, personally, deplore the continuance of corporal punishment as a means of discipline in schools, I recognise that there is an official point of view. But I am hopeful that investigation will modify it.

11.43 p.m.

In the very few moments that are left I should like to say that no Minister could have made a better answer to this Debate, for it shows the right view and the right way for a Minister to go about it. The only thing that I want to say is that my own view with regard to the opinion that we must not get ahead of public opinion is that public opinion is not as bad as some people think.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTYSPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13 th November.

Adjourned at Sixteen Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.