Corporal Punishment Revisited

by Peter Wells

Corporal punishment is a sickening and ugly procedure. Apart from the fact that one person is deliberately hurting another (usually smaller) at close quarters, it is often associated with anger, and even sadism. It is too often administered without reflection, too soon after a perceived offence has been committed. It is humiliating for the victim, especially if done in public, possibly causing lasting resentment and/or low self-esteem. It may encourage the development of violent attitudes among its recipients. The recent efforts to outlaw it are therefore humane and well-intentioned and, as far as they go, praiseworthy.

Unless, as in the case of Capital Punishment (q.v.), the alternatives turn out to be worse.

Let us look in turn at three loci in which corporal punishment has been used (and is now outlawed) in the UK: school, the home, and the criminal justice system.

As a teacher for half a century, I’ve given a lot of thought to how classes might be managed and children’s misdemeanours dealt with, and much has changed in that time. In the past, in addition to formal canings or beatings, administered by a headteacher or a responsible deputy, teachers in the classroom were given unofficial licence to strike children – which, as they were usually sitting in desks, meant hitting the part of the body most exposed: the head. Sometimes they threw things – chalk, if you were lucky. Aside from the obvious physical danger of this practice, it was inconsistent and suffered from flawed motivations. Teachers developed irrational hatreds for particular students, and therefore punished them with exceptional savagery. They were sometimes angry for some extraneous reason. The relationship between the crime and the punishment was ill-defined. I can remember dropping off to sleep in a warm classroom after lunch, and waking to find my head ringing from a blow, my spectacles broken on the floor beside me, and the red face of my French teacher a few inches from mine, roaring with rage. QED – it was a long time ago, and I still remember it vividly! And I particularly resented it because I was a keen student, who normally kept to the rules.

However, our revulsion at such treatment should not drive us to condemn corporal punishment wholesale. Punitive actions like these were not codified, reported, monitored, or carried out by properly trained and designated officers according to an agreed protocol. Arguably they were always illegal, being quite simply assaults. The comparison, therefore, should be between a transparent corporal punishment system, with provision for evidence and judgement, and trained officers to administer it, and whatever might be done instead.

When a child has stolen, cheated, lied, bullied, vandalised equipment, or disrupted a lesson, a bad situation has arisen. Whatever is done about it is not likely to be pleasant to administer or experience. If it is pleasant, it is unlikely to deter, but society rightly demands retribution and deterrence. The situation should, as far as possible, be prevented from recurring.

The first resort is to talk to the child, trying to discover why they have behaved as they did and persuading them to behave better in the future. This was done far too little in the past, but it does not really address the issue under consideration, which is, What do we do if talking doesn’t work? You can’t talk about ethics to a child, or send them to cool off, or put them on the naughty step, if they tell you to Fuck off, or kick you. The question is what to do when a child continues to oppose authority, and will not agree to apologise or reform, or even listen to advice or persuasion.

Here, traditionally, there have been a number of alternatives to corporal punishment. One is to make the miscreants write something, such as a long essay or letter of apology about their offending behaviour. This, it is alleged, will make the child think seriously about what they have done, and reduce the likelihood of re-offending.

However, I was an English teacher, and the idea of using a writing task as a punishment fills me with horror. My aim, like all English teachers, was to encourage a love of writing, which would create a virtuous circle – the students would write more, get better, enjoy it, write more, and so on. To turn writing into a punishment simply undid all I was trying to do – and the victims were usually the sort of disaffected students who were most in need of a positive attitude towards it. Would the games teacher condemn culprits to half an hour of football, or the music teacher recommend half an hour of music as a punishment?

The same goes for another traditional non-violent punishment: detention (obliging the offender to stay on the school premises for additional time, perhaps with an academic task). Again, the wrong message is sent. School is supposed to bring benefit to all children, especially those whose home circumstances make them particularly in need of that benefit. To use more of it as a punishment (and, contrariwise, to reward achievement and virtue with less of it) implies that the teachers secretly agree with disaffected pupils that school has no value except as a tool of control, being nothing but an imposition – a prison sentence for the crime of being young.

The worst substitute for corporal punishment, however, is done with the mouth. Deprived of their freedom to slap or otherwise injure recalcitrant children, many teachers resort to sarcasm. An accomplished mocker – a teacher who has acquired status and confidence – can punish and deter malefactors by holding them up to ridicule in public. While a clip round the ear does carry a slight risk of a permanent injury, sarcasm is much more likely to inflict lasting damage. It harms self esteem, and imparts a lingering resentment which can obstruct a child’s progress seriously – even terminally.

In view of these considerations, it might be worth asking if a properly organised disciplinary procedure, in which misbehaviour was assessed and a condign punishment devised, might justifiably include a painful blow or set of blows calculated to cause pain, but not permanent injury, administered by a properly trained officer not personally involved in the relevant incident. In a word (to use the British expression), caning.

A similar point might be made about discipline in the home. Deprived of the right to spank, parents, like teachers, have recourse to insults and verbal abuse – the worst being “Mummy/Daddy won’t love you if …”

There are many ways in which parents can harm children; as Philip Larkin remarked:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do. (This Be The Verse)
Parents may neglect their children, or put too much pressure on them to succeed. The may compare one sibling unfavourably with another. They may reveal that they regret having had their children, due to the work and inconvenience they cause, and may show them little affection. They may neglect their children, overfeed, over-praise or over-criticise them. None of the above are against the law. We have not yet mentioned the sort of abuse that is illegal. Compared with all these possibilities, a slap on the wrist or the bottom seems comparatively innocuous. Again, it is the horror stories that deter us from taking a clear-eyed view of domestic corporal punishment. Children are so vulnerable, and so often harmed, that we long to save them from any form of violence. Sadly, the laws about spanking will not reach much farther than the decent parents who already have a good relationship with their children. Those who have an abusive relationship with them will only be further irritated by the do-gooders, and possibly intensify their violence. To permit corporal punishment in the home is not necessarily to encourage punching and kicking, outbursts of savage temper, or the use of household implements as weapons. It could be to suggest that a known tariff of rewards and punishments, including moderate corporal punishment, might be in place, which can be administered in loving care by rational parents working with clear aims and ethical guidelines, shared with the children.
The case for considering corporal punishment in the criminal justice system is similar. Our horror at the abuse of corporal punishment in other lands or eras may blind us to the real nature of the alternatives.
Over 60% of all those sentenced to prison in England and Wales are subject to a sentence of less than a year. The vast majority are sentenced to less than six months in custody. During this time, these minor criminals, overwhelmingly in younger age groups, will be exposed to a culture of rape, bullying and drug-taking, and may well be drawn into more serious  crime. They will come out with a criminal record, making it more difficult for them to get jobs in the future.
All these points have been made in the current debate in the UK about reducing the number of short prison sentences that are handed down. If the campaign succeeds, offenders may well be sentenced to community service instead of incarceration. This is a much more attractive option than prison, but it still carries dangers. The work that ‘pay back teams’ do – usually manual work to improve the environment – is, realistically, the sort of work they might get to do as a full-time paid job, given their educational status, which is probably low-level. As with written punishments, this means that something we would hope they would aspire to do, as part of the process of ‘going straight,’ is experienced instead as a punishment, making it less likely that they would so aspire.
If offenders refuse to do community service appropriately, or fail to pay a fine, the only resort available at the moment is imprisonment, with the problems already mentioned. A physical punishment, by contrast, can be administered swiftly, with no interruption to the young malefactors’ careers or education, and minimising their exposure to bad influences. Yes, I am talking about a beating. It’s not a pretty thing. But it may, occasionally, be the least evil response to the situation.
I was wondering how to conclude this deliberately provocative article. Rhetorically? Philosophically? Statistically? Politically? How about jocularly?
Fifty years ago, as a novice teacher in a British co-educational secondary school, I was in a system where the written law was that hitting children was illegal, but the de facto rule was that male teachers could hit boys, but not girls. Female teachers, as far as I could gather, hit neither, but relied on their personalities (though I know of female primary school teachers who were still hitting children in this century).
Three children of around 12/13 had seriously disrupted one of my lessons after repeated appeals for co-operation. As an idealistic young practitioner I had neither hit them on their heads, nor thrown objects at them, but proposed, at the end of the lesson, to strike them on the palm of their hands with a sturdy ruler. My problem was that one of the miscreants was a girl. After telling the boys to brace themselves for their ordeal, I instructed the girl to go to the office of the redoubtable Mrs Simpson, clergyman’s spouse, draconian Head of Lower School, and possessor of a basilisk stare. (I would not have liked to face her disapproval myself!)
“No, Sir, please Sir,” pleaded the girl, with terror in her eyes. “Don’t send me to Mrs Simpson!”
“Go to Mrs Simpson!” I insisted.
“No Sir, please Sir, hit me Sir, please hit me!”
The conversation went thus for a worryingly long time (with escalating volume) before the poor child was eventually convinced that the punishment for not going to Mrs Simpson would be an even worse visit to Mrs Simpson.
I’ve often wondered what would have happened to my burgeoning career if a senior member of staff had happened to overhear this bizarre interchange while passing my classroom door.
It has since occurred to me more than once what a great blessing would have been gained had a group of liberal thinkers been fortunate enough to have passed by, and discovered that there are worse things in life than a whack on the hand.