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Video clips: UK: 1970s

TV discussion on corporal punishment

With comments by C. Farrell

United Kingdom -- 1970s TV coverage: two clips.

CLIP 1: Question Time discusses school corporal punishment, 1979

This recently discovered 10-minute video clip is an extract from BBC TV's Question Time, a weekly panel discussion on current affairs that still thrives today. As it happens, this was the first-ever episode, broadcast on 25 September 1979. It is wittily and astutely chaired, as the programme was to be for the next ten years, by the much-missed Robin Day, who devoted much of his life to bringing intelligent debate about serious issues to a mass audience.

    The two politicians present on this occasion were Teddy Taylor and Michael Foot, and the two non-political guests were a lady novelist, Edna O'Brien, and a Catholic archbishop, Derek Worlock.

    In the late 1970s corporal punishment in British schools was becoming a frequent topic of debate. The anti-CP campaign STOPP was on the rise, and its propaganda was beginning to draw attention to the fact that the cane, the tawse and the slipper were still quite prevalent in many schools, contrary to a general impression given by the media earlier in the decade that it was more or less a dead letter, in the state-controlled sector at least.

    The country's largest local education authority (LEA), Inner London, had already ended CP in primary schools in 1973, and by 1979 it was being pressed strongly by left-wing activists to extend this ban to secondary schools, and equally strongly by some teachers' organisations not to do so. In the event, that was to happen in 1981, and a growing number of other left-controlled LEAs began to ban CP around the same time. However, another 8 years were to elapse after this TV programme before CP in state schools was outlawed nationwide.

    The split we see here between Taylor (right-wing) and Foot (left-wing) is pretty typical of how the CP debate broke across the political divide in this period. Taylor worries about a collapse in discipline and has no doubt that CP is a deterrent to misbehaviour by "hooligans", whose disruptions prevent the well-behaved majority from getting on with learning. Foot rejects CP mainly on "human rights" grounds: he claims that it is degrading, and he does not directly address the question whether it is effective. These two politicians happened to come from the far ends of the mainstream political spectrum, the right of the Conservative Party and the left of the Labour Party respectively, and their views on most subjects, including this one, could easily be predicted.

    Of the four panellists it is Teddy Taylor, a "Monday Club" Tory, who has easily the most well-rehearsed arguments to put forward. He is very familiar with the topic, mentioning in passing that he is also in favour of judicial CP for juveniles, an avenue of debate that moderator Day quickly shuts down as not relevant to the question asked. One senses that Michael Foot, at this point Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, is not really very interested in this sort of issue. He knows enough to trot out the anti-CP party line, but quickly slides into his default comfort zone of poking fun at his political opponents.

    The novelist and the archbishop, possibly more representative of moderate public opinion, are less clear-cut in their views. The RC archbishop waffles and dissembles: on the one hand, he very much dislikes CP but, on the other, suspension is even worse. He is playing on a slightly sticky wicket, because at the time CP was rather common in many Roman Catholic schools, as a member of the audience points out. (The UK Catholic hierarchy did come out against school CP a few years later.)

    In sum, nobody says anything very interesting or new. But then, on this topic they scarcely ever did. It was ever thus: the fairly small number of people who feel strongly about it one way or the other take up their well-worn positions, in a decades-old dialogue of the deaf. Everyone else shuffles about and changes the subject as soon as they can.


IMPORTANT: Copyright in this video material rests with the BBC. This brief excerpt is reproduced under the "fair use" doctrine EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window for private, non-profit, historical research and education purposes only. It must not be redistributed or republished in any commercial context.

CLIP 2: Tonight visits a Scottish secondary school, 1978

David Jessel, later to make his name as a tireless campaigner against miscarriages of justice but here still a humble reporter, struggles to disguise his own liberal leanings as he visits a Glasgow school on behalf of the BBC's Tonight programme in October 1978. The traditionally-minded headmaster, who favours the retention of the strap, is interviewed at some length in this 9-minute clip, as also teachers, students and parents on both sides of the debate.

    At this point what was officially called the tawse -- everybody in ordinary conversation called it the belt or the strap -- was near-universal in Scottish schools. It was much more frequently used on average than the cane in England, typically being applied "on the spot" by ordinary teachers, in front of the class, on a daily basis, for mostly quite trivial reasons, rather than being a penalty dished out privately in the office for more serious offences, as was often the case with the English cane.

    Jessel makes much of European comparisons, but these leave the headmaster unmoved. It was a regular feature of STOPP's anti-CP propaganda in this period to point out that all other countries in Europe had long abolished corporal punishment. This may not have been 100% true, but it was near enough true to make a gradual impact on the way the issue was viewed.

    In the event, most Scottish local education authorities had got rid of the tawse -- surprisingly smoothly and quickly, in view of the entrenched attitudes on display here -- by the mid-1980s, ahead of UK-wide abolition (as far as state-funded schools were concerned) in 1987.

    Note: this clip proved technically difficult to process, and there are some momentary freezes in the video stream.


IMPORTANT: Copyright in this video material rests with the BBC. This brief excerpt is reproduced under the "fair use" doctrine EXTERNAL LINK: opens in new window for private, non-profit, historical research and education purposes only. It must not be redistributed or republished in any commercial context.

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