Sometimes I fancifully imagine the state education system waited for me to finally leave school before they outlawed corporal punishment on their premises. The facts bear me out. I exited education in 1985; caning and other forms of physical teacher-on-pupil chastisement were abolished in 1986. Okay, so I might be exaggerating my small pond reputation as a trouble-maker, but it does seem retrospectively coincidental. I actually managed to evade the cane, which now seems quite an achievement; but I was cunning. However, that didn’t prevent me once being led into a darkened room by a teacher, where I was ordered to bend over, and a term’s worth of pent-up frustration of being outwitted by a smart-arse shit was unleashed in the form of a hard plimsoll on my backside. That was the ritualised form of punishment; there were more spontaneous acts of violence on the part of the staff during lessons, of course – objects being hurled across the classroom, tables being shoved into the midriff, heavyweight registers whacked on the back of the head – all perfectly legit and an accepted response by an exasperated or simply sadistic teacher to a pupil he regarded as disruptive or merely annoying.
In the public schools, regular beatings were regarded as character-building as sport, especially in the days when pupils were being groomed to govern the colonies; so entrenched was the practice that prefects could administer a thrashing of a younger pupil on behalf of a teacher, viewed as a perk of the prefect system. Parodied and satirised as a key aspect of public schooling in literature, films and on television (anyone remember Jimmy Edwards in ‘Whacko!’?) it was no wonder it took longer for the law to be extended beyond state schools – 1998 for England and Wales, 2000 for Scotland, and 2003 for Northern Ireland.
The birch was the most commonplace implement for punishment in schools up until the advent of the cane in the late nineteenth century, eventually being outlawed throughout British educational establishments in 1948, though controversially retained on the Isle of Man until the mid-70s. The cane became rarer as a form of school discipline in the 70s, usually administered only by the headmaster and gradually superseded by the slipper. By this time, buttocks bearing the brunt of the impact were no longer bare, probably to the disappointment of those teachers who paid good money for their own bottoms to receive a far harsher treatment from a lady of their choice. A greater awareness of the physical as well as psychological effects on a developing body and mind played their part in the eventual ending of corporal punishment in schools, and the subversive sexual element of the exercise was probably a factor too.
I haven’t even mentioned the unlicensed activities of playground bullies, but we’re talking adult-on-child here. Away from school, parental punishment was less regulated and more impromptu, if just as predictable. Strangely enough, being aware of what the consequences could be rarely stopped an act guaranteed to provoke them; a deterrent? Not really; but it did have some effect, looking back. It certainly made any affection towards my father difficult, knowing what he was capable of; and I have always found it hard to forgive and forget, quite frankly. The memories of running away from a six-foot ogre in anticipation of a red handprint on my legs loom large in my childhood recollections.
It is true that successive generations of children experienced a less violent form of physical retribution from a parent as chastisement fashions changed; my parents came from the era when a father removing his belt and whipping his child was a common occurrence, giving rise to the ‘it never did me any harm’ cliché as justification for dishing out their own punishments, ones in which the hand was regarded as a more humane alternative to the belt. The backside was generally the target area, with the head and ears reserved for special occasions. Mostly, the casual nature of these smacks reflected the minor misdemeanours I committed; my mother would routinely smack me in public and nobody would have considered her guilty of child abuse. Dennis the Menace always ended his weekly adventure bent over his father’s or teacher’s knee with a slipper or cane poised to descend upon his bum, after all. Did I really deserve it, though? I was no Dennis as a child, certainly not in comparison to some of the kids I went to school with; but that was the language of child-rearing as spoken during my formative years. I wasn’t to know then that within twenty or thirty years the language would be outlawed forever. I wasn’t to know then that I belonged to the last generation of children who would receive it both at home and at school.
One could say there’s a fine line between ‘acceptable’ chastisement of a child by a parent and actual abuse, though the majority of parents know where the line lays. Any government interference that robs them of authority over their own children’s punishment stinks of the state adopting an in loco parentis approach. The last major poll surveying parents in 2012 found that 63% disapproved of a smacking ban.
I suppose there’s an argument to be made that being exposed to such rough justice from an adult at an early age toughens you up and eradicates any brattish tendencies, just as parents and teachers telling you you’re a waste of space and will never amount to anything could galvanise you into proving them wrong. We now have a generation of young adults who bypassed all of that, whose idea of punishment at home was the naughty step and at school, suspension. They’re the ones we saw throwing wobblers in supermarkets back in the noughties as their hapless parents had to stand and watch. They’ve also been repeatedly told how special they are, something that won’t necessarily prepare them for the gradual realisation they’re not. Imagine when they get to university and how they’ll cope with something that contradicts their opinion of themselves and the world around them. Oh, we’re already there.
© The Editor