Spare the Rod…

I was 4 years old when corporal punishment was banned in schools. It has always been history for me. I remember my Primary school Headmaster telling us stories of when he was caned as a child and subsequent stories of how he had caned children in his early teaching days. Bessie (his cane) was still in his office, and I saw her on more than one occasion (in his office for very good reasons - positive reasons, I mean).

Bessie was the stuff of legend in the playground. There was even a rumour that she had been used on a boy in the previous year (it was always the previous year, no matter what year it was; that mystical time of ‘the not-to-distant past’). The boy had been expelled and his parents were so embarrassed by the whole thing that they didn’t complain and that’s why it never made the local paper.

As children, we were fascinated with this mysterious dystopia where the children were so badly behaved they had to be beaten into submission by the adults. What could have happened to these children to cause such bad behaviour and blatant disrespect? And why on earth would any of them misbehave enough to be caned more than once?

Throughout my Secondary school years, I could see why a cane might have come in handy for some of us. I was always a very capable student, but I can’t profess to have been a ‘good’ one. My whole class were naughty. There are no other words for it. No wait, there are: we were little shits. We were given whole-class detentions; we were told off; we missed break and lunchtimes and we didn’t care. I was cheeky and often pushed my luck, but there were others who were quite literally a stone’s throw from an ASBO. They were the children who were most vocal when it came to being punished.

We’ve all been there. You’re being told off as a group and the indignation from the authority figure over an infraction that you deem to be insignificant causes you to giggle uncontrollably. Resulting in a feedback loop of greater indignation and more uncontrollable giggles. The more experienced, or possibly more rested, teachers would issue a punishment and walk away. We really weren’t worth the stress. The less rested, or more exasperated, would end up taking all of our free time then asking if that’s what we wanted. The reply from the gobby kids? So what? Give me a detention. I just won’t turn up. You can’t do anything about it.

And they were absolutely right. It was the mid-90s, there was absolutely nothing they could do. We were children. We were untouchable. The best the school staff could hope for was that something would be done at home (where we could be physically reprimanded legally). Some of the children were. Some of the most disruptive were beaten. Not punished. Beaten.

Flash forward to my adult years (still in a classroom - I’ve never left!). I had a debate with someone about why children should never be hit. He insisted that, for some, it is the only way they learn. I totally disagree. That’s control through fear, not through respect. We are teachers, not Kray twins. But I can kind of see where he is coming from. As teachers, we have lost the battle with some children. Not all. Not even most. At least, not in the Primary sector - I have no idea about Secondary.

I had a child in my most recent class who was physically and racially abusive to adults and children alike. Once, after punching me in front of the class, he called me a ‘stupid fucking white idiot’ and spat at me. The rest of the class were appalled (and scared). I was appalled. But what could I do? I told him to leave the room and go to his learning mentor (one had been hired specifically for this child at a cost of £1000 per week). As he left the room, he destroyed a few things and hurled verbal abuse at various children.

After a few moments, one of the children in the class asked if the school was going to do anything about it. They wanted to know why he was allowed to behave that way and then ‘go and play with Lego’ (kids aren’t stupid), whereas they, the ones who followed the rules, were told off and made to miss playtimes if they so much as answered back to adults.

And I didn’t have an answer. I agreed with them. It was school policy I was following; I had received instructions directly from the Head after a 90-minute meeting with the child’s parent, social worker and me (my class were being covered by a TA while I was stuck in this meeting. That’s 1 child’s behaviour disrupting 29 children’s education, but hey, every child matters, right?). These primary-aged children had the measure of it. And there was nothing I could do.

For reasons I can’t go into, I went through the school’s complaints procedure and suggested that the children discuss things with their parents if they were upset and follow the steps on the school’s own website. I ended up getting into a lot of trouble. The child who punched and spat at me? Nothing happened to him. He got to play with Lego.

But I still don’t think that hitting children is the answer. I think the problem is a breakdown in society. When I was a child, if you were in trouble at school, you would be in trouble at home. Now? If you tell parents that their child has been misbehaving, they threaten to sue the school and teachers end up apologising for not properly addressing little Timmy’s violent needs. Something, somewhere has gone horribly wrong. I don’t want to say that the lunatics are running the asylum, but…

As a society, we have lost the connections we once had. I’m not going to blame social media or TV or violence in the news, there’s no point. I don’t think advances in technology are a bad thing; TV is probably more socially aware than it was ‘back in the day’, and there has always been violence in the news. We just seem to be scared to tell children, young children, that they are wrong. I know people who won’t even say ‘no’ to a child for fear of damaging their self-esteem. The result? Angry, confused young adults who seem to be under the misguided impression that they have the right to anything they want to anyone they choose.

I’m not saying that Boris Johnson’s crack-down on discipline is a good thing, especially if the money for it comes at the expense of other learning resources. But I am saying that something needs to be done. Perhaps, instead of spending so much time on testing and straining to reach unrealistic levels, we should spend a few hours teaching compassion, self-respect, humility and empathy? That could work, right? Who knows, if those few extremely disruptive children felt better about themselves, it might just free up class teaching time; maybe those tests could be taught after all…

It’s just a thought.

I’d love to know what you think. Let me know in the comments section, or @ me on Twitter (details below).

Carl Headley-Morris