There is a division running rife through the Schools Week office and it’s not just which radio station we should play as we work.
It’s the split between those who attended school when corporal punishment was still possible, and those who cannot believe that there was ever such a thing.
This is because the answer to the pub quiz question “In what year did England ban smacking in state schools?” is 1986. Way later than many people realise. Especially if they started school in 1987.
England didn’t ban corporal punishment in the independent sector until 1999 – the year that Britney Spears first entered the UK charts
You may also have noticed the “state” school caveat there. England didn’t ban corporal punishment in the independent sector until 1999. Which, for the sake of context, was the year that Britney Spears first entered the UK charts and the euro was introduced.
Not everyone was happy about the situation, though. The heads of a number of Christian fellowship independent schools appealed, at length, through various courts, for the ability to have delegated authority from parents to physically punish their children should they wish.
A BBC report from 2005 says the heads claimed that boys would be hit using “a thin, broad flat paddle to both buttocks simultaneously in a firm controlled manner”. Meanwhile, “girls could be strapped on the hand and then comforted by a member of staff and encouraged to pray”.
That’s 2005, by the way. The year Tony Blair won a historic third general election for New Labour and England finally managed to regain The Ashes (which, ironically, they had last won just as the smacking ban was introduced).
In the end, the campaigners lost, with judges deciding that no human rights were being denied if teachers couldn’t whack kids upside the head. Or anywhere else (whether on hand with comfort blankets or not).
Still, 1986 may not sound so bad as a time for such a change. I mean, in the 1980s we were still smoking on planes and driving leaded cars. That’s just how things were, right?
Wrong. Poland banned corporal punishment in schools in 1783, something that is still enshrined in the country’s constitution. Finland followed suit in the late 1800s. Even the Soviet Union gave it up by 1917.
So why is England so hit-thirsty? It’s not that the issue was never brought to attention. Professor Michael Freeman, an expert in children’s law, has written on several occasions of his discovery of a petition from 1669, presented to parliament, by a “lively boy” who was aggrieved at the “severities of school discipline of this nation”.
One can only speculate if these days he would be made into a hero or villain by the tabloid press.
We also shouldn’t take for granted that people won’t try to overturn the ban. In 1987, a year after its prohibition, Warren Hawksley, then MP for Halesowen and Stourbridge tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to bring back “whipping” for “offenders” (including those under 14).
His rationale was that on a visit to the Isle of Man, which had retained corporal punishment, he noticed tourists would jokingly say to the police that they wouldn’t cause any trouble.
“It worked on the Isle of Man and it would work here,” he claimed at one point, during his lengthy speech. Perhaps it would. But given everywhere else has coped without it for more than 100 years it was probably just as well that his amendment fell.