corpunWorld Corporal Punishment Research :  Country files: documents : UK reformatories 1960s

United Kingdom: Caning of Reformatory Absconders, 1960s

from Home Office Research Studies 12: Absconding from Approved Schools

by R.V.G. Clarke and D.N. Martin

(HMSO, London, 1971)

Section 5: Corporal punishment and absconding

Although caning was formerly a common punishment for absconding its use has declined in recent years. No figures are published,** but it is evident from talking to headmasters and staff in approved schools that its use for absconding varies considerably from school to school. Therefore it is legitimate to regard the use of the cane as a school regime variable.


** The schools make corporal punishment returns to the Home Office. From time to time figures have been given in reply to Parliamentary Questions.

Considering the dispute and emotion surrounding the topic very little is known concerning the deterrent value of caning in the approved school setting, or indeed in any other schools. Many staff members both in approved and other schools believe that caning is a deterrent to certain types or behaviour. In a survey undertaken for the National Foundation for Educational Research, Highfield and Pinsent (1952) reported that 89.2% of a large representative sample of teachers in state schools agreed that corporal punishment as a last resort should be retained in schools, and 77.8% were strongly in favour of it when used with discretion.

In addition, they found that teachers with 5 or more years of professional experience reported using corporal punishment least out of a number of disciplinary measures, but ranked it first in order of effectiveness for dealing with difficult boys and girls. The position may not have altered much since 1952: at the 1967 conference of the National Association of Head Teachers only 2 delegates out of several hundred voted for the abolition of the cane and in 1968 not one delegate spoke in favour of its abolition.

It was decided that an investigation of the deterrent value of caning was important to the present research on grounds of policy and of theory. (Indeed, the investigation was undertaken largely at the suggestion of the administrative staff in Kingswood Classifying School.) For if boys are not deterred from absconding by the cane it could be argued that in view of its other supposedly harmful effects it should not be used. Further, if caning is not a deterrent, this might suggest that the absconder is impelled by motives over which be has little rational control.

Using the absconding records of Kingswood Classifying School for 1960-64, the object of the research reported here was to discover (1) whether corporal punishment is a deterrent to further absconding by the caned boy, and (2) whether it deters other boys from absconding.

Some of the results of this study have been reported previously (Clarke, 1966), and here they are not presented in detail.

Basic information

Occasionally a boy is not returned to the Classifying School after he has absconded. Most commonly this is because he has committed further offences as an absconder for which be has been committed to borstal. In the period studied 577 out of the 610 abscondings resulted in the boy being returned to the school. Below, the percentage of boys admitted in each year who absconded is listed together with the percentage of abscondings which resulted in corporal punishment.

From the above it can be seen that while the proportion of admissions who absconded fluctuated considerably, the percentage of abscondings resulting in caning decreased fairly steadily. This decrease in caning may have reflected a conscious policy of the Warden. Throughout the period studied the same man was Warden, and he was normally the only person (a) to decide whether or not to cane, and (b) to administer the cane. He said that one of the factors he took into account in deciding to cane, was whether caning the boy would help maintain school discipline. In his opinion canings for this reason became progressively less necessary during the period studied.

Corporal punishment was applied with a cane over a boy's ordinary cloth trousers. The most usual number of strokes was six, but the range was one to eight. In accordance with the Approved School Rules, boys were not caned in the presence of other boys, but the boys in the house would certainly get to know if one of their number had been caned for absconding.

Does caning a boy deter him from absconding again?

In Table 6:6 the 28 junior boys who absconded at least twice in the period studied are divided into those who were, and those who were not, caned for their first absconding. These proportions are compared with the proportions of junior boys who were either caned or not caned for their first absconding, but who absconded only once. Also in Table 6:6 the same procedure is followed for 67 senior boys who absconded twice.

Table 6:6

Number of boys caned who re-absconded compared with number not caned who re-absconded from Kingswood 1960-64





Caned for 1st absconding

Not caned for 1st absconding

Caned for 1st absconding

Not caned for 1st absconding

Absconded once





Absconded twice





X2 (with Yates' correction):
for Juniors = 5.53 (significant at 5%, 1 d.f.)
for Seniors = 5.31 (significant at 5%, 1 d.f.)

From the figures in Table 6:6 it can be seen that for both juniors and seniors, fewer of the boys who had been caned for their first absconding ran away again compared with the boys who had not been caned. At first sight this seems to be evidence that boys who have been caned for absconding are deterred from further absconding, but there is an alternative explanation for which there is support in the data. It is shown in Appendix D that the man who decides whether or not to cane the boys, i.e. the Warden, might be able through experience to recognise boys who are likely to abscond more than once from the school. It is also shown that he is less inclined to cane boys who are likely to abscond more than once unless (a) they have committed offences, or (b) been away from the school for an unusually long period on their first absconding. Thus it might be argued that there is little evidence that caning a boy for absconding deters him from further absconding. Selection factors are operating in the decision to cane, and many of the boys who re-abscond and who were not caned for their first absconding might well have re-absconded even if they had been caned. In view of this alternative explanation it is not possible to decide on the basis of the study whether punishment by caning deters a boy from further absconding. Even if it did deter a boy from absconding again from the classifying school, it does not seem to deter him from later absconding from the training school (see Chapter 3, Section 3).

Does caning a boy deter other boys from absconding?

For each absconding (N=209) by a junior boy the number of days between the return of the absconder to the school and the next absconding by a junior boy was calculated. This was done separately for abscondings that resulted in caning and those that did not. The same procedure was followed for senior abscondings (N=368). The figures are given in Table 6:7.

Table 6:7

Interval between absconder's return and next absconding, Kingswood 1960-64



Mean days between absconder's return and next absconding

Standard deviation







Not caned










Not caned





It can be seen from Table 6:7 that the difference between the mean number of days until the next absconding for junior boys caned and not caned is 2.99 (standard error of difference = 1.89, N.S.). For seniors the difference is 2.56 (standard error of difference = 0.95, Significant at 1%).

Thus it appears that caning a junior boy for absconding does not deter other juniors from absconding, but caning a senior boy for absconding does deter other seniors from absconding. Although the difference between the number of days till next absconding is not significantly different between the two junior groups it is in the same direction as for the seniors. In view of this, possibly not too much should be made of this difference between seniors and juniors, unless confirmed by other studies.


Little can be concluded from this study concerning the effect on the subsequent absconding behaviour of a boy who has been caned. Uncontrolled selection variables could have accounted for the lower re-absconding rates of the caned boys. In a study of the effect of caning boys for smoking in a South Wales secondary modern school, Palmer (1965) found that the smoking of boys who had been caned increased whereas that of boys who had not been caned decreased. However, he also concluded that uncontrolled selection effects in the decision to cane could account for the difference.

The present study does seem to provide evidence, however, that caning a boy for absconding deters other boys from absconding, at least in the older group. On the face of it, this finding is not in agreement with results of an enquiry into caning and discipline in a sample of schools in the West Riding of Yorkshire reported by Clegg (1962), but it is probably unrealistic to expect comparability of findings from studies made in such different situations. He found that in schools where behaviour was rated as 'poor' and where the juvenile court appearance rates were high, caning was used more, not less, frequently. However, there is nothing in his report to contradict the possibility that the behaviour in those schools which used the cane more frequently might have been worse had it not been used, although he does show that the worst behaved schools do not necessarily draw their pupils from socially disfavoured areas.

Nor is the present finding in agreement with those of an apparently similar study undertaken by Sinclair (1971). Sinclair sought to discover whether a severe court sentence for absconding from probation hostel deterred other boys in the hostel from absconding. He undertook the enquiry partly because of the very strong conviction of hostel wardens and probation officers that absconding can be deterred in this way. He calculated the interval until the next absconding separately for those boys who were sentenced severely by the court and those who were not. He found no significant difference between the groups in the interval till next absconding, although intervals till next absconding were slightly longer for the severely dealt-with cases. Perhaps, however, Sinclair's result is inconsistent with the present finding only if both caning and court appearances are classified simply as punishments. But as 'punishments', practically the only thing they have in common is that practitioners believe that both deter absconding. There are so many differences in the circumstances attendant on the two punishments that a discussion which attempted to resolve satisfactorily the different outcome of the studies would have to go much more deeply into general theories of punishment and deterrence than is merited here.

The issue might be clarified a little if the present study were repeated using the absconding records of a selection of training schools. If caning is a deterrent to absconding from a classifying school with its constantly changing population, it might be expected that the deterrent effect would be more marked in the training schools where the population is relatively stable. To investigate this, however, was outside the scope of the present research. It is hardly necessary to add that even if caning were a deterrent to some types of undesirable behaviour, this does not necessarily mean that it should be used. Anyone using corporal punishment (and indeed other disciplinary measures) must take into account certain ethical considerations as well as the possibility that it may have other harmful psychological effects.


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