Running Commentary: Common assault

In 1669, a petition was presented to Parliament by a “lively boy” on behalf of schoolchildren, to protest at “the severities of the school discipline of this nation”, calling schools “not merely houses of correction but of prostitution”. In 1889, one of the four demands of the London schoolboys’ strike was an end to caning. This has now finally been instituted in Parliament by a vote of 231 to 230, nearly a hundred years later (so much for the speed of the reform process). But beating children in schools is still legal and widespread in countries like the USA, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. And in Britain, parents and those having “lawful control or charge” of children are still allowed to administer “moderate and reasonable” physical punishment with impunity. How a physical assault on someone who is smaller and weaker can be moderate and reasonable is one of the mysteries which only the great Law Lords in their wisdom can fathom.

Corporal punishment in schools was banned in Poland as early as 1783, in France in 1881 and in every other European country by 1982. One of the main reasons it was not banned sooner in Britain was the teachers’ trade unions’ passionate defence of the right to beat schoolchildren. The NUT became committed to opposing corporal punishment, through Conference Resolution, only in 1982 and the NAS/UWT has remained in favour up to its inevitable acceptance of the new Act. Figures taken from school “Punishment Books” in the early 1980s by the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment showed approximately 250,000 school beatings a year in England — one every 19 seconds. In 1979, Buckinghamshire celebrated the International Year Of The Child by reintroducing corporal punishment for infants. And a 1974 survey in Edinburgh found over 10,000 instances of use of the tawse (leather strap) on just 70,000 children in two terms.

In the USA, corporal punishment is legal in 42 states, especially in the Southern Bible Belt where the inane and barbaric dictum “if you spare the rod you spoil the child” is popular. The traditional weapon for this purpose in the States is the wooden “paddle”. It has been officially estimated that there are about three million such beatings there each year, mostly at the primary level and disproportionately carried out on black children (Times Educational Supplement, 31 July 1987). In Georgia, state law gives immunity from civil or criminal action if the punishment is given “in good faith” and is not “unduly severe”. Last year one Georgia 13-year-old who had been “paddled” returned and stabbed the principal to death and an Alabama mother is being charged with assault after hitting a teacher over the head with the paddle he used to hit her seven-year-old son. The comment of John Sikes, the Georgian School Superintendent, once again acknowledges the inevitable problem of setting up up compulsory conditioning centres, like prisons, and calling them places of learning:

We’ve been using paddling here since schools began, and to be honest with you, I don’t know what we’d do without it. The only alternative is to send unruly kids home, and they won’t learn anything there.

Recent reports from both Malaysia and Swaziland have also exposed widespread sadistic treatment of schoolchildren (TES, 14 August 1987). The Malaysian NUTP union has documented 200 cases including savage beatings, locking children in cupboards for long periods, making children lick urine from the floor and one teacher who habitually punishes boys by squeezing their testicles; one of his pupils recently had to have one testicle surgically removed; the head reassured the union that this teacher was being “transferred to another school “. All of the other documented cases have also led only to the teachers concerned being reprimanded or transferred.

With all of the recent press coverage of assaults on children, it should not be forgotten that this vast number of legal assaults is taking place across the world. Such ‘sanctions’ are a common part of the compulsory conditioning of capitalism’s schools.

Clifford Slapper