Corporal punishment in British state schools, and also in private schools receiving any element of public funding, was banned by parliament in 1987. For an overview of the events leading up to abolition, and its aftermath, see a Jan 2007 newspaper article, "Sparing the rod".
In the remaining private schools it was banned in 1999 in England and Wales, 2000 in Scotland, and 2003 in Northern Ireland. Most had anticipated the legislation and abandoned CP voluntarily several years earlier. A few Christian private schools held out, and fought the ban through the courts, ultimately without success (see links below).
What did CP in British schools involve? There is no single, simple answer. This page is mainly about state schools in England and Wales. Because Scotland has its own distinct education system with different traditions, there is a separate article about CP in Scottish schools. Private schools, about which even fewer generalisations are possible, will have to await separate treatment elsewhere. (But see this 1973 newspaper article for a round-up of the caning situation then prevailing at seven "top" private schools.)
The state education system in England and Wales used to be highly decentralised, and there were always wide variations of practice between schools, even between different schools of the same kind in the same area. The only rule laid down by central government was that all formal CP was supposed to be recorded in a punishment book.(1)
(1) Department of Education, Administrative Memorandum 531, 1956 (but this was only a codification of a requirement laid down much earlier).
The 100+ local education authorities (LEAs) in England and Wales -- created in 1902 to replace the old local school boards -- formulated their own rules, or in some cases decided not to have any rules.(2) These varied a lot, but most were not very specific about the modus operandi. It is easier to list the few maverick oddities than to try to summarise the majority: thus, the tawse was specified instead of the cane in a handful of places, including Newcastle, Gateshead, Manchester (which changed over from the cane in 1907), and Walsall. Just one LEA, Coventry, bizarrely required all canings for both sexes, even at secondary level, to be applied to offenders' hands and not to their backsides. Two others, Kingston and Richmond, in my view much more sensibly, came close to saying the opposite -- that caning of the hands was strongly discouraged as potentially injurious.(3) Richmond was also unusual in adding that girls, unlike boys, must not be caned at all, though they could be slapped with the open hand.
(2) Under Section 23 of the Education Act 1944.
(3) A point of view dating back at least to 1903.
Only two LEAs laid down a maximum number of strokes (East Sussex, 3 strokes; Durham, 6 strokes). 18 required the act to be done in private; 10 mandated a witness to be present. About half of all LEAs said that only women teachers could punish girls, but only two, Inner London and Oxfordshire, also laid down that only men could cane boys. Some (Barnet, Brent, Clwyd, Derbyshire, Mid-Glamorgan, Oxfordshire) forbade the caning of girls other than on their hands while explicitly stating that boys could be disciplined either on the hands or on the clothed buttocks. Some LEAs confined themselves to prohibiting teachers from hitting pupils' heads or boxing their ears. Some restricted the number of staff permitted to inflict CP, e.g. to the head teacher and those specifically delegated by him or her. At least one (Bradford) laid down that the punishment must follow as soon as possible after the offence. Three (Newcastle, Shropshire, Wiltshire) said just the opposite: that there should be a cooling-off period before discipline was administered.(4)
(4) Guide to LEAs' Corporal Punishment Regulations in England and Wales, Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment, Croydon, 1979.
All that was the situation as at 1979. LEA rules from earlier periods include the long-defunct Middlesex in 1950 (girls to be caned "only in exceptional circumstances" and only on the hands; boys could be caned on the hands or buttocks) and Somerset in 1954 (CP only as a last resort; girls to be caned only in extreme cases, and never by male teachers).
There had been disputes about CP since the early days of universal state education. In this 1894 court case, a clearly out-of-control teacher was successfully prosecuted and fined for assault. It is interesting that the judge in that case deprecated caning on the hands and boxing the ears, and said they were "exceedingly dangerous forms of punishment". He went on to observe that "nature provided a special place for boys to be punished upon and it should be used".
Much more often, though, in the rare instances where corporal punishment cases reached the stage of prosecution, heads and teachers were vindicated by the courts, which generally upheld the punishment as "reasonable" and therefore lawful. For some early such cases, see this Dec 1900 news item and this May 1903 one (the latter being interesting also for its use by the magistrate of the colloquial term "to be swished" meaning to be caned) and this Nov 1933 one. Another example is this 1937 appeal hearing, in which a headmaster's conviction for assault was overturned, even though the caned boy was said in evidence to be severely bruised. So too is this 1945 case in which a bare-bottom slippering at a prep school was held not to be excessive or unreasonable. And in this Aug 1959 case, a six-whack slippering for a 12-year-old was deemed reasonable by magistrates.
But anti-CP campaigners used to complain that aggrieved parents rarely got a fair hearing in the courts. Of course, we must always remember that the CP cases that got into the courts and hence into the newspapers were, more or less by definition, highly untypical.
The idea of parental consent was largely unknown, but a few schools did send a letter home with the student after the event, or listed the punishments received in the pupil's end-of-term report. More often, though, "getting the cane" was a punishment that (unlike detention) at least had the advantage, from the student's point of view, that with any luck one's parents might not get to hear about it.
Any individual school could choose not to use CP. Some 20% of secondary schools did so in the 1970s, according to informal guesstimates by STOPP. The remainder were spread between those where canings took place every day and those where CP was almost unheard of, with every possible variation in between.
Among the majority of mainstream state secondary schools, caning (usually across the seat of a bending student's trousers) had been particularly prevalent in boys-only schools of all types, from mediaeval grammar schools(5) to brand-new secondary moderns.
(5) But the old boys' grammar schools, like most of the independent schools, would generally have used the birch until the mid- to late 19th century. Manchester Grammar School was exceptional in going back from caning to birching in 1904 and in 1907 staunchly defending the practice as greatly preferable to caning. It is not clear how long this eccentric policy lasted: MGS seems to have reverted to caning by the postwar era and was certainly using the cane in the 1970s.
Records show that third-, fourth- and fifth-formers (ages 13 to 16 inclusive) were by far the most frequent recipients. The caning of sixth-formers (up to and including age 18) was much less common, but by no means unknown, as in this 1959 grammar-school case and at two Croydon boys' schools as late as the early 1980s.
Probably the most popular caning offence was smoking. Other crimes normally punished corporally included bullying, cheating, insolence, missing detention, and truancy. Lesser sins in very many boys' schools were often dealt with by a slippering (see below).
As far as is known, corporal punishment was nowhere systematically made a matter of choice either for parents or students, as is now routine in some American schools. However, there was one element of "voluntary CP" at some state boys' schools, like Maidenhead Grammar School (as also at some independent schools, such as Emanuel School in London), where it was understood that a student who had accumulated other punishments, such as detentions or impositions, could at any time present himself at the headmaster's office and apply to be "swished" instead. The request, if granted, would be fulfilled forthwith, and the slate thereby wiped clean. The culprit would emerge sore and stinging, but with suddenly a lot more free time. This optional facility was known as "getting your detentions caned off".
Rugby at a traditional boys' school in the 1960s. "Getting your detentions caned off" was an offer aimed especially at sportsmen at some schools, where the student's presence at an important match, which he would otherwise miss, might be crucial. Some of the rugby shorts seen here probably cover painful "tramlines" acquired during a recent visit to the headmaster's study -- in some cases perhaps voluntarily.
At secondary level, a rattan cane perhaps 36 to 40 inches in length would be a typical implement, especially for punishing boys. If administered vigorously, this would leave painful weals or "tramlines" across the student's posterior lasting several days, and often some bruising as well.
The cane was also not uncommon, at least up to the late 1970s, in many mixed-sex schools, whether comprehensive or other, though boys invariably needed a lot more disciplining than girls. In these schools the punishment might be applied either to hands (especially in the case of girls) or to behinds, often depending on the whim of the teacher. Anecdotal evidence suggests that boys were likely to be caned harder than girls.
Concern had been raised among doctors as long ago as 1934 about the possible medical dangers of caning schoolgirls, who (it was suggested) might well be suffering nervous strain and/or pain already as a consequence of menstruation. Opinions seem to have differed quite widely; at all events, the national authorities remained unpersuaded that CP for girls should be banned altogether, though one or two LEAs did so, and several others strongly discouraged it.
The new Sex Discrimination Act generated a certain amount of nonsense in the tabloid press in early 1976, with speculation that girls would thenceforth have to be caned as much as boys. In fact it had no such effect, and the Head Teachers' union advised its members to continue to be "cautious" about using CP on girls. A retrospective myth seems to have grown up in some quarters that this issue was one of the causes of eventual total abolition, but I know of absolutely no evidence for this claim.
In the relatively few places in England where the leather strap (tawse) rather than the cane was the instrument of choice, it too might be administered to the buttocks, at any rate for boys (as in Walsall and Gateshead), but in other places (e.g. Newcastle) this was given to both sexes on the hands, as in Scotland. In Manchester it seems to have been left up to individual schools, with a culprit at boys-only establishments such as St Augustines RC being asked to bend over a chair to be strapped, while his opposite number at one of the city's mainstream co-ed schools would often have to hold out his hands, following the Newcastle/Scotland model.
"Bend over!" was the traditional command to a pupil about to receive posterial discipline, but there was no consensus across different schools as to how this should be done. One common method was to have the offender stretch across a desk, as in the fictional film still reproduced at the top of this page (from Melody, 1971). A variation on this is described in our article on Sharmans Cross High School in Solihull. Some teachers required students to touch their toes, as illustrated on the front cover of the STOPP booklet shown above; this presented a particularly taut target (in fact too much so, according to some practitioners), but it had the disadvantage of lacking stability -- the recipient might fall forwards with nothing to hold on to. Probably the most frequently used aid to punishment was a chair. The student might be told to stand in front of it and put his or her hands or elbows on the seat, or to stand behind it and bend over its back.
A humorous take on how to bend over for the cane, from Terry Deary, "Cruel Crime And Painful Punishment", illustrated by Mike Phillips, in the "Horrible Histories" series, Scholastic Children's Books, London, 2002.
By the late 1960s the traditional "six of the best" had given way in most places to milder penalties of only two or three strokes as the norm, though to some extent this was compensated for by the fact that, with the advent of synthetic textiles, trouser material became significantly thinner in the 1960s. Underwear, too, got briefer and more lightweight as fashions changed. Other things being equal, each stroke of the cane was therefore sharper in its effect than in the days when trousers were made of wool and underpants of heavy flannel.
At many schools these formal canings tended to be administered privately, often in the head's office or the staffroom. "Public" ceremonies of formal caning in front of the whole school were rare in modern times, though not completely unknown. (One education committee, Romford in Essex, unusually banned public CP in 1961 after six girls were caned in front of 600 schoolmates.)
Some schools did cane in classrooms or halls or corridors, witnessed by whoever happened to be present. It depended partly on who was allowed to use the cane: in some places all teachers were permitted to do so, other schools restricted it to the head and deputy head, or perhaps to senior teachers or heads of department only. Again, practice varied widely.
More informally, the "slipper" -- something of a euphemism: in fact it was normally a big, heavy gym shoe or plimsoll -- was widely used for instant, unofficial discipline over the clothed seat of both sexes (though, again, many more boys than girls), typically in the presence of classmates. Most teachers would hold the implement by its heel and apply the sole to the offender, but some maintained that it was even more effective the other way round, with the heavier heel end being the part that made contact. In some schools, every teacher had his or her own "slipper". Its use was particularly prevalent in the gym in the hands of physical education or "PE" teachers. Slippering was usually a brisk affair: the student was typically made to come to the front, bend over on the spot, be whacked two or three or four times, and return to his or her seat as the lesson continued without further ado.
Although there was usually less ceremony about it than the cane, the slipper, if wielded sufficiently enthusiastically, could deliver a salutary lesson. Certainly a hard slippering of several whacks would be eye-wateringly more painful than a feeble caning, and could leave the student's backside bruised for a day or two. A few schools made the slipper their "official" implement, administered it formally in the office, entered the slipperings in the punishment book, and did not use the cane at all. But this was fairly unusual, and the majority of slipperings in British schools went unrecorded. If challenged on the legality of this, teachers would probably claim that they did not need to be entered in the book because they did not constitute formal CP.
This article gives a first-person account of slippering practice at a traditional boys' grammar school (ages 11 to 18 inclusive) in the 1960s, at which the cane was administered in the office for serious offences, but the slipper, applied in the classroom by individual teachers, was much more prevalent. This kind of arrangement seems to have been typical of many secondary schools. The article is illustrated with pictures of a gym shoe said to have been used for the purpose at a different school in the 1970s.
See also this May 1978 news item about unofficial slippering at a famous boys' comprehensive school in inner London. This was a rare case of the media writing about the existence of the slipper in their coverage of school CP, which usually dealt only with the cane. In this instance the local newspaper evidently thought it remarkable; but journalists have more often than not been poorly informed on these matters, and the anecdotal evidence suggests that there were more, maybe a lot more, slipperings than canings in English schools, at least in the 1960s and 1970s.
In this article about a secondary modern school in Norfolk in the 1950s, it is claimed that boys were slippered hard on the backside, sometimes with "six of the best", while girls were rulered on their hands. The article makes no mention of caning.
CP in girls-only schools was, by all accounts, very rare. There was the odd exception like Northwich Girls' Grammar School; but even there, the formidable Miss Janet Dines claimed she had hardly used the cane in ten years before the event that got her into all the papers in 1976.
In primary schools (ages 5 to 11), and in the pre-1950s all-through elementary schools (age up to 13), slapping with the hand, applied to bottoms or hands or arms or legs, appears to have been the physical punishment of choice. One also hears of rulers having been rapped across knuckles, but I am not sure if this was common. Slippering and caning were used to some degree, but the cane here was more likely to be applied, if at all, to the palm of the hand than elsewhere, and would tend to be a shorter and lighter instrument than the 36-inch cane often used at secondary level. Quite a few primary schools, like quite a few secondary schools (though by no means all), chose to exempt girls entirely from all these kinds of punishment, even where boys received it rather often. CP in primary schools seems generally to have tailed off rather earlier than in secondary schools: common enough in the early 1950s, it was clearly less so by the end of the 1960s, though it had by no means disappeared everywhere even in the early 1980s, as these punishment book extracts show.
"Pants-down" punishment, not unknown in some private schools, was almost unheard of in the state sector in relatively modern times, especially from the 1960s onwards. Even if it was not explicitly forbidden anywhere, the authorities probably would not have tolerated it. Probably the most significant exception is that gym/PE teachers, at any rate in some boys' secondary schools, would occasionally mete out slipperings in the changing room, where recipients might happen to be in a state of undress at the crucial moment. It was a mild example of what Americans call "locker-room culture", an often semi-jocular experience in an often somewhat "macho" atmosphere. (To a cynical young audience today, this will no doubt sound like what is inevitably nowadays called "abuse", but it felt perfectly reasonable in the context of the time.)
Another marked difference from the private sector is that few state schools in the modern era allowed prefects (selected senior pupils) to administer CP. Some old-established boys' secondary grammar schools, such as Stamford Grammar School, did so until around the middle of the 20th century. An outlier in this regard was Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, where big boys were empowered to formally slipper smaller ones until as recently as 1965. (At my own similarly ancient grammar school, this practice was always said to have been stopped in the 1940s.) Of course, a prefect in any school could always send an errant student to the headmaster, which at some schools would automatically mean a caning, and in some cases the prefect might be a witness to the castigation.
Also, some schools, even new-built comprehensive ones, introduced a system of "students' courts" at which a recommendation for CP might be one of the "sentencing" options available, but this was subject to confirmation by the teachers in charge, and it would be a member of staff who delivered the actual punishment. I have heard of at least one Birmingham secondary modern school in the 1960s where this caning allegedly took place "there and then", in front of the members of the "court", but I suspect this, if true, was quite unusual.
It cannot be emphasised too strongly that these are all broad generalisations, to which exceptions could always be found.
A left-wing back-bench move in Parliament to ban CP at national level failed by 181 votes to 120 in 1976. Attempts to push through local bans in Cardiff (1968) and Liverpool had both collapsed in the face of hostility from head teachers.
No LEA banned corporal punishment altogether until 1979/80, when three Labour-controlled outer London boroughs took the abolitionist plunge, followed more famously in 1981 by the huge, Labour-controlled Inner London Education Authority (ILEA), which covered 12 London boroughs, a population of nearly 3 million, and getting on for 1,000 schools. The ILEA had already banned CP in primary schools with effect from 1973.
Several more Labour-controlled LEAs followed suit in the early 1980s. It is a matter of conjecture how much part the anti-CP organisation STOPP played in causing this snowballing trend. Certainly, from the late 1970s onwards, it put out plenty of controversial propaganda, especially in the form of letters to local newspapers, but there is some evidence that the real push for abolition within a number of LEAs came rather more from leftwing Labour councillors in collaboration with a far-left ginger group within the National Union of Teachers (NUT) called "Rank and File", with which STOPP's (always small) membership somewhat overlapped. To put this in context, it should be remembered that the 1970s and early 1980s in Britain was a period when the far left was successfully infiltrating many local Labour Parties and several trade unions.
Many NUT members in the union's mainstream, and certainly the great majority of members of all the other teaching unions, were not at all in favour of abolition.(6) NUT's main rival, the more male-dominated NASUWT,(7) campaigned aggressively in favour of keeping the cane. NASUWT members tended to complain that NUT was much too dominated by female primary-school teachers who had no experience of the problems facing teaching staff in tough secondary schools.
(6) Back in 1914 that same union went so far as to claim that all teachers, not just head teachers, had the right to cane, and that this right "must not be interfered with by local regulations" -- a position they never in fact achieved.
(7) National Association of Schoolmasters/Union of Women Teachers. This campaign gave rise to a joke on the left of the NUT that NASUWT stood for "National Association of Sadists and Union of Women Torturers".
Headmasters, too, could be robust in defence of their right to use corporal punishment, as seen in this June 1968 report from their annual conference.
It is a myth that abolition was overwhelmingly demanded by school pupils themselves. True, a flurry of activity by the very short-lived "Schools Action Union" in 1972 briefly gained some press publicity, but this was a tiny, and almost certainly highly unrepresentative, group based entirely in a small number of London schools and manipulated, if not indeed created, by older students on the far left. Then in 1977/78 came the National Union of School Students, marginally longer-lasting but scarcely any more representative of pupils generally. It campaigned more against unofficial and irregular CP, as in this Aug 1977 report and this May 1978 one, than against CP as a whole. A 1977 survey of young people found that half of them were in favour of retaining CP at school, including many who had themselves been caned or strapped.
Over a quarter of a century after CP was removed from state schools in 1987, there is still a lack of consensus on the issue, with many parents and commentators, some teachers and community leaders and even young people continuing to believe that moderate and properly regulated caning (or belting, in Scotland) helped to maintain order, and was a much more constructive response to serious misdeeds than suspension or expulsion, which merely grant a "holiday" to those who refuse to behave. Clearly, it is widely felt that the anarchy and chaos now evidently prevailing in so many state schools -- and the poor educational standards that result -- are due at least in part to the enforced absence of corporal punishment. Others, though, including probably most politicians and "experts", will still defend abolition as the right decision on balance, or at least as inevitable under European human rights legislation.
The only thing on which everybody seems to agree is that, for better or worse, there is no realistic prospect of CP ever being restored in Britain.
In 2008 a new round of controversy over the issue was set off when a survey found that one teacher in five, and almost a quarter of all secondary school teachers, would still like to see corporal punishment reinstated. In 2011 another survey found that half of parents and 19% of students also wanted to bring back the cane.
And as recently as 2012 the co-founder and chairman of the governors of the most high-profile of the present government's brand-new so-called "Free Schools" said he would happily restore CP if it were allowed.
In 2016 a prominent newspaper columnist -- who happens to be the wife of a senior member of the government -- announced that she had changed her mind about CP for school bullies. "I'd pull their tracksuits down and cane their bare bottoms until their cheeks burned red and they wept with pain and shame", she wrote in the influential Daily Mail.
One consequence of the perceived collapse in school discipline has been a tendency for some (especially immigrant-descended) parents to send their teens abroad to complete their secondary studies, often to Africa or the Caribbean, where a stricter and more structured education, including CP where necessary, is still available. See e.g. this Nov 1997 news item about an under-achieving 13-year-old whose parents sent him to school in Ghana, with miraculous results, and this similar Nov 2007 report in which a British 17-year-old, sent away, also to Ghana, to study for his GCSEs, admitted he had been caned several times and agreed he was benefiting academically from the novel experience of strict discipline. See likewise Children sent to Caribbean for 'basic' schooling, a news report from July 1996, and UK Ugandans rush kids to Kampala schools, from May 1998.
The Friends Reunited evidence [HISTORY]
What do the Friends Reunited anecdotal recollections tell us about the nature, distribution and incidence of corporal punishment in English schools in the 1960s and 1970s? A feature article including a table of "The top 50 CP schools".
Purley High School for Boys [HISTORY]
Feature article about a heavy-caning school near London.
The Cane and the Tawse in Scottish Schools [HISTORY]
Feature article on corporal punishment north of the border.
Caning in Private Schools, 1960s [HISTORY]
Extract from a sociological study of 166 elite boys' private schools in 1964, giving statistics for how many senior boys and how many teachers were allowed to administer corporal punishment and a discussion of the frequency of use of the cane.
Stretching Forward to Learn [HISTORY]
An article by one who received school CP in the 1960s: what it was like, and how he feels about it now.
EXTERNAL LINKS: (these will open in a new window)
Spare the Rod
Short article in History Today (Nov 2012) asserts that it was only in the 1890s that ordinary class teachers gained the right to use CP; before that, only head teachers were legally entitled to do so, under the common-law doctrine of in loco parentis. No source is cited for this claim. The author finds that, "far from being a relic of a cruel Victorian past, corporal punishment became more frequent and institutionalised in 20th-century England", but seems to overlook the obvious fact that the main reason it became more prevalent was that the number of secondary-school students soared, as the age up to which education was compulsory was steadily increased by law over the decades.
Corporal Punishment Archive [HISTORY]
Covers the UK only, with a major emphasis on school CP but also some interesting material about judicial and military juvenile punishments of the past. Includes an excellent gallery of historical drawings and numerous other illustrations as well as some well-chosen historical texts.
Stephen Fry on Corporal Punishment [HISTORY]
An extract from the ubiquitous polymath's memoir Moab Is My Washpot (1997). He was often caned at Stouts Hill prep school around 1970, but harbours no grudges. He takes the view, which I tend to share, that corporal punishment, in the great scheme of things, is not actually a very important issue one way or the other. But it has now become "so culturally loaded as to be almost impossible to inspect", with all the talk of "abuse" causing "hysteria, madness and stupidity in almost everybody". Other kinds of punishment were more damaging, he suggests.
Corporal punishment [HISTORY]
Encyclopaedia entry from 1911 summarising the state of the law at the time: teachers had the common-law right to chastise their pupils, not only for offences at school but also, under a court ruling of 1893, for those committed on the way to or from school, or during school hours. However, these powers were subject to any regulations made by the local education authority.
R v Secretary of State for Education and Employment and Others ex parte Williamson and Others
This important document is the full Law Lords ruling in the case brought by a group of Christian schools against the 1998 legislative ban on corporal punishment in all schools, even private ones. The schools claimed that their "freedom of belief", as protected by human rights legislation, was infringed because it was their Christian belief that naughty children should be spanked. As reported in these February 2005 news items, the highest court in the land has now dismissed their claims, upholding government and parliament in the 1998 blanket prohibition of all and any school CP.
YOUR EDITOR'S PERSONAL VIEW ...
I think we can probably view this case as the absolutely final and definitive nail in the coffin of school CP in Britain.
There are actually three different opinions here, by three judges who appear somewhat to disagree with each other, arriving at the same conclusion by different routes.
In my own personal view as a non-lawyer, I find some of the argumentation quite difficult to follow. Much of it seems rather subjective, and I can't entirely avoid the feeling when reading judgments of this kind that the judges are, to put the matter in demotic terms, "just playing with words" or "making it up as they go along".
My suspicion that there isn't really a solid consensus about this, and that perhaps an apparent consensus on the final outcome is being fabricated for reasons of political expediency, is strengthened by the fact that one of the judges here, Baroness Hale, goes so far as to say that she is "deeply troubled" by the approach adopted by the Court of Appeal. In effect she seems to be saying that the Court of Appeal reached the right conclusion but for quite the wrong reasons.
Her approach is an extreme "children's rights" one - she clearly holds that it is quite immaterial what the teachers and parents might think, and that the child's supposed "right" not to be spanked overrides anything his parents say. I seriously doubt whether more than a minute fraction of ordinary people share this view. (She doesn't, as far as I can see, comment on the possibility that the child himself might take a different view, perhaps preferring being spanked to some other punishment.)
At all events, I have to say that after over an hour's careful perusal I put this document down feeling completely unconvinced that these private schools should be prevented by law from mildly spanking their students when necessary, if that is what the parents want.
DFEE Circular No 10/98
Guidance from the government about the legal position concerning corporal punishment (not permitted) and other physical contact or reasonable force (still allowed).
Application No. 9146/80 [HISTORY]
This document, in which the European Human Rights Commission ruled in 1986 that the case was inadmissible, describes the two-stroke caning of an 11-boy in 1979 for throwing a conker at a girl, breaking her glasses. The medical evidence was that the marks on his bottom were already fading by the following day. Note that the Commission emphasises that such a school caning in a headmaster's study is an entirely different matter from judicial birching of the kind considered in the Isle of Man case, reaffirming once again that corporal punishment is not per se necessarily contrary to the Human Rights Convention. However, in the end it is on a legal technicality (time limits expired) that the case is thrown out.
Application No. 14229/88 [HISTORY]
This is the Human Rights Commission's full report on the case of Matthew Prince, who in 1983 at age 15 received four strokes of the cane across the seat of his trousers for bullying at Brighton College, a private school. The punishment was administered by the headmaster, Mr Blackshaw, who allegedly took a run up at each stroke (though this was denied by the authorities). The case for indignation on the part of the boy seems slightly undermined by the evidence that he "subsequently showed off the marks of his punishment to other boys with pride".
The Commission was divided (there are three dissenting opinions) but the majority thought this particular caning, which caused weals, swelling and bruising, was, unlike other school cases considered, serious enough to be "degrading treatment" under Article 3 of the Convention.
See news report of 14 November 1992, Public schoolboy awarded £8,000 for caning ordeal, which includes a picture of Matthew, by then aged 25.
YOUR EDITOR'S PERSONAL VIEW ...
To me, this decision seems perverse. After all, the boy had a history of bullying, and was a tough lad -- captain of the rugby team, for heaven's sake. He had previously been caned at his prep school, without complaint. Some might feel that it would be difficult to think of a more appropriate case for a smart swishing. (At my school he would certainly have got six.) We are solemnly informed that the caning brought tears to his eyes and that he was in severe pain for an hour -- well, that is actually the object of the exercise!
I note from former Brighton College students' reminiscences formerly at Friends Reunited (website now closed down) that Mr Blackshaw was not averse to dishing out six of the best in other cases, so arguably he let Matthew off rather lightly.
Anyway, the issue was never tested in the Human Rights Court, as the applicant eventually accepted a "friendly settlement", i.e. a payoff from the government to withdraw the case. The original application was by the boy's mother, who was "horrified" when she saw the "injuries" on Matthew's backside, but it is interesting that he showed them to her only after his sister called attention to them, and he himself had not spontaneously thought the matter worthy of mention upon his arrival home that day.
Reading between the lines, I wonder whether the whole thing was pursued by the mother rather against the boy's wish, and since by the time the case reached Strasbourg he had become an adult, he was able to decide for himself to back out.
Campbell and Cosans case [HISTORY]
A key European Court of Human Rights judgment (1982), which hastened the demise of corporal punishment in British state schools. The case concerned two Scottish boys whose parents refused to allow them to be given the belt at school. In fact neither of them ever did actually receive the belt. One of them was never even threatened with it, but his mother failed to get an assurance from the school that he would not be belted in some future hypothetical circumstance. The other boy was ordered to be strapped but refused, whereupon he was suspended from school.
Contrary to popular myth, the court found that corporal punishment, of the kind then routinely administered in Scottish schools, was not of itself a breach of the Human Rights Convention. To that extent the plaintiffs, who had initially claimed a breach of Article 3 ("inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment"), in fact lost their case, a fact almost unnoticed when the outcome was reported.
However, the court did hold that the boys had been deprived of their right to an education in keeping with their parents' views, contrary to Article 2 ("the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education ... in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions"). The UK government argued, unsuccessfully, that opinions about corporal punishment did not amount to "philosophical convictions".
See news reports of 30 October 1996, Scottish cases helped to ban the beatings; and also 26 February 1982, Parents win right to forbid school caning, in The Archive, and the related video clip on the same page.
YOUR EDITOR'S PERSONAL VIEW ...
The Court's reasoning here against the British Government's submission seems to me pretty feeble (the UK judge on the Court wrote a dissenting opinion on this point) and one cannot help wondering how they would wriggle out of it now if someone were to claim that their views in favour of c.p. also constituted "philosophical convictions" and that they were therefore being denied an education in accordance therewith, since no schools are now allowed to use any corporal punishment. [UPDATE: This is more or less what later happened in Williamson, the "Christian schools" case, see above.]
It should also be noted that the Article 2 claim stood up only because there were no alternative non-belting state schools within reach, and the parents in question could not afford private schools. If the present-day system of "school choice" had been in operation then -- or even if the local education authority had made an effort quietly to find ways of satisfying the requirements of a tiny number of (in my personal view) cranky parents, instead of being so arrogant and rigid about the whole thing -- the case would never have got off the ground and things might have gone quite differently over the last 25 years.
Costello-Roberts v United Kingdom [HISTORY]
1992 judgment by the Human Rights Court about a seven-year-old boy who was slippered at a boarding prep school. The boy's mother removed him from the school shortly afterwards, but persisted with this legal action, which must have cost the taxpayer many thousands of pounds. The court held that three whacks on the buttocks through shorts with a rubber-soled gym shoe, applied by the headmaster in private, did not constitute inhuman or degrading punishment. Nor, it judged, did the punishment violate the boy's "moral or physical integrity".
Clearly, all the school authorities actually did wrong was to fail to spell out, in their information to prospective parents, that corporal punishment was a possible consequence of misbehaviour -- though I think they might have been forgiven for assuming that anybody who knew anything about anything would have been perfectly well aware that that was an entirely normal practice at boys' independent prep schools at the time.
The Debate on Corporal Punishment before the European Commission and European Court of Human Rights (1978-1998) [HISTORY]
Discussion of the above and other ECHR cases, from a "children's rights" point of view.
Education Act 1996, section 548 [HISTORY]
Text of legislation prohibiting corporal punishment of any student, whether in a state or independent school, whose education is to any extent publicly funded. As far as I know, this is what the 1986 legislation already said, so perhaps this was just a consolidating act. In any case it has now been superseded by the following:
Text of England and Wales law banning corporal punishment in all schools
This is the legislation voted into law on 25 March 1998, which took effect the following year. An equivalent law for Scotland came into force in 2000.
House of Commons: Corporal punishment lawful with parental consent [HISTORY]
On 28 January 1997 the UK parliament debated reinstating CP in state schools, ten years after it was abolished. The move failed, but the debate is quite interesting.
150+ other external links for UK/Schools