Italy abolished corporal punishment in schools in 1928. It took the UK another seventy three years to finally abolish corporal punishment in all its state and private schools.
In the case of capital punishment the time scale is even more dramatic: almost two centuries divide the abolition of capital punishment in the enlightened grand duchy of Tuscany (1786) and the UK, where the last hanging took place in 1964.
There will be those who think that the abolition of both corporal and capital punishment in the UK has led to social degeneration and those who feel that the last traces of ‘legal barbarism’ have since been removed from British society.
I was brought up and was taught in educational establishments where the ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ attitude was still rife. In my primary school one was assaulted either by a rattan cane or by a belt (could there be a choice?) Areas of bodily impact could either be one’s posterior or one’s palm. I think I may have been hit once by a certain Mr M, for reasons of which I remain ignorant to this day. I just know that I felt both very hurt and very bewildered and that the first thought in my mind was not to let my parents know in case I received another thrashing from them by ‘shaming’ the family.
How different from today! If a child tells his or her parents that a teacher has ‘legally’ assaulted them the consequences could be rather different.
These thoughts came to mind when I consider what happened to me at the hands of a certain Mr A at my secondary school. Suddenly this person, so like a character straight out of Dotheboys Hall, came to mind. I googled his name only to find that he’d expired in late summer this year and that a well-attended memorial service had subsequently been held. I investigated further and found that not everyone lamented his passing. True, there were comments like ‘firm but fair’ and eulogies to what A had achieved to raise standards in another south London school where he’d become Head after apparently having been asked to leave mine for bullying. There were also, however, comments referring to a less than admirable side of his character and suggestions that he would have been prosecuted in today’s social and educational climate.
It was the first year in my secondary, or ‘public’ school. I’d managed to get into the place thanks to an educational authority bursary (wonderfully generous days then) as a result of having done well in the eleven plus exam. The majority of my teachers, who still wore their university gowns (but not their mortarboard caps), were likeable but A was an utter terror. A particular incident sticks in the mind when being taught English by him. A hauled me to his desk in front of the class for some misdemeanour and then began to give me a third degree belittling and, indeed, threatening me to such an extent that members of my class of 11 to 12 year-old boys said out loudly to him “stop it sir. That’s enough, we feel.”
Extraordinary that children at an age and in a school like mine should have responded with such conscientious attitudes to such a frightening situation….
My school also allowed corporal punishment to be meted out by the boys themselves in the guise of their role as prefects. Indeed, some of these prefects were feared more than many teachers and their punishment was worse. For example, ‘early report’ for teachers meant having to turn up at school a quarter of an hour before morning assembly. For prefects it meant having to turn up half an hour before!
A teacher, respected and valued by us to this day, did note recently that boys had rather more responsibility at the school than they have now. He mentioned that among these greater responsibilities was that they could administer the cane. I wonder if prefects had to ask the headmaster’s permission before they whacked some victim or whether the decision was left up to them. By the time I became of an age to be a prefect the practise had lapsed anyway.
Later in life I took up part-time work at a private primary school where corporal punishment was still practised. One of my conditions of employment was that I would not disagree with it. Actually, the pupils I taught were generally so well-behaved that the thought of having any of them assaulted never entered into my mind. I do remember, however, being praised by the Head for the good exam results of my classes. I, to this day, cannot believe that caning led directly to good results: the declaration of some pupils that they were ‘saved’ from their errant ways by some beak thrashing them remains ever difficult for me to fully comprehend. It never hurt me more than it hurt them.
It’s easier to understand how so many other countries still adhere to the belief that whacking a pupil improves their mental and social abilities. There may well be a clear correlation between school corporal punishment and the country’s political system. Just look at these maps:
(Green: corporal punished illegal at school and at home.
Blue: corporal punishment illegal at school.
Red: corporal punishment allowed at school and at home.)
To return to A. As it’s not considered a good thing to speak badly of the dead, I should add that I met A many years later at a school reunion. He actually apologized to me: ‘let bygones be bygones’, he uttered and we had a spot of lunch together.
I admit this meeting removed much of the trauma I’d suffered from his hand at school where he selected his favoured few from the class and mistreated the rest.
Ironically, since A taught me English, a major theme in the literature of the UK is the horror of school education. Who cannot read Orwell’s ‘Such such were the joys’ or Dickens’ ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ or Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ without revulsion at the passages dealing with school experiences. Can we really say that some teachers were bastards but that, at least, they were fair bastards? I wonder – as I wonder whether I would have had a happier time in a corporal punishment-less school in Italy.