December 2, 2023

The 70s 80s 90s Blog

Three Decades of History with TV historian Tony McMahon

Corporal punishment in 1970s schools

10 min read
Corporal punishment was a constant feature of 1970s schools reducing children to a terrorised state as TV historian Tony McMahon remembers

It’s hard to believe but a whole swathe of the British population, still very much alive today, was legally beaten by teachers with canes, gym shoes, straps, and anything else to hand in the name of classroom discipline up until 1986. Corporal punishment was a strong feature of 1970s schools. And even if you never experienced the horror of a caning – which I didn’t – the fear hung in the air.

How could anybody in the late 20th century have justified it?

And yet – its abolition in 1986 (1998 for private schools) was met with indignation right up to the top of government. What, a child can’t be ordered into a room with nobody else present to be assaulted by a teacher? It beggars belief I know, but this Victorian regime of discipline had many supporters. And far from being used sparingly, it was a commonplace.

On social media in the 21st century, some pine for the old ways. The usual argument in favour of beating children, still heard from my generation and older, is that “it did me no harm” or “made me who I am”. Well, if you like the idea of a school run by terror where pupils were genuinely scared or depressed on passing through the school gates in the morning, then the 1970s disciplinary regime was for you.

In reality, the presence of a physical threat created a toxic climate for everybody in school and left more vulnerable kids in a dreadful state. It also encouraged a culture of violence in the school playground where pupils meted out punishments on each other. Though I never suffered this myself, I remember one dark and sinister place termed the “flob pit” and the posts of the cycle sheds were used as testicle crushers. I leave it your imagination to picture the scene.

So, join me in the time machine and let’s go back to school in the 1970s…

Corporal punishment at junior school

I was once asked to take a message from one teacher to another and this involved walking through the school assembly hall. It was then I saw the most curious spectacle that still flummoxes me when I recall it.

A pupil, aged about ten, was holding two Encyclopaedia Britannica volumes above his head with elbows slightly crooked. I later discovered that the teacher had insisted that his quivering arms could not be fully extended nor could the books rest on his head.

They had to be half-way between to ensure maximum agony. Through the glass panes of the classroom door that adjoined the assembly hall, this sadistic teacher kept an eye on his victim to ensure there was no cheating.

May sound over the top – but to the ten-year-old me, it was like a crucifixion without the nails.

Another of this teacher’s punishments was to make a naughty pupil touch his desk with their nose and stay in that position, bent over and motionless. Where on earth he picked up these ideas I can’t imagine. But he saw service in World War Two and I did wonder years later if he was held in a Japanese POW camp because it would have made sense. Maybe he took notes for his future teaching career!

In contrast, my form teacher at the same time was also ex-Second World War but the kindest soul who ever inspired a classroom. A former RAF officer with a big moustache and a commitment to making school a happy place. His experience of being in the military had turned him against petty rules. Sadly not everybody shared his philosophy.

FIND OUT MORE: School gym horror in the 1970s

Corporal punishment at a private school

For just over a year I went to a small private school as my parents wanted to get me into a particular grammar school outside our London borough but there was a waiting list. The school the borough had allocated didn’t please my mother when, at the open day for parents and prospective pupils, the head teacher sidled up to Mum (who was Portuguese) and asked if she could teach Spanish when the academic year started as that teacher had just quit.

So, it was a fee paying establishment for me. Based in a sprawling, slightly scruffy, 19th century schoolhouse with outlying buildings. The main shareholder was a well-built, bellowing vicar. And corporal punishment was very much on the menu. The “slipper” was the favoured method of torture. Basically a plimsoll applied repeatedly with as much force as the teacher could muster to the backside of an errant child.

Male teachers slippered boys and female teachers did girls. The vicar took his slippering duties very seriously. Fortunately, he decided I was a model pupil – as he taught English which I enjoyed – and so my arse was left well alone. There were some kids who found it amusing to sneak up to the door behind which he carried out his grim task and listen to the victim yelping in pain.

The most disturbing corporal punishment incident involved a PE (sports) teacher who up to that point I’d thought was a good egg. After forcing us to play rugby in the rain where we ended up knee deep in sludge and freezing, two pupils lost the plot. They slumped to the ground and just started chucking mud at each other laughing deliriously. At which point, the PE teacher blew his whistle and ordered us back to the changing room to shower and get dressed.

He joined us in the group shower room all jolly banter and passing the soap until we got out and started towelling off. Then he suddenly yelled the name of one of the two boys and ordered him to “touch your toes”. In front of all of us, he brought a gym shoe down with what seemed like incredible velocity to my terrified eleven-year-old eyes. I was stunned and appalled.

The following day, the pupil concerned actually boasted in the school playground that he still had the mark of the shoe on his bottom. Shortly afterwards the PE teacher moved on to be replaced by somebody who was arguably even worse. Whereas I’d avoided any physical punishment from the outgoing teacher, I experienced one unforgettable encounter with his replacement.

For the crime of talking in class, I was lifted upwards by my underdeveloped, 12-year-old sideburns. Let me assure you – that hurt.

What struck me was how physical punishment was meted out for breaking school rules that made little sense. They were regulations from a more militarised age. So, I remember one kid caned for dancing in the rain (yes, that PE teacher again) or for violations of school dress code that were utterly trivial.

I recall one girl being taken away for having epaulettes on her coat! Meanwhile I was told to take a “hot wire” (hardly safe for a child to handle) and cut through the heels of my shoes which were deemed to be too high. These were the thick crepe soles fashionable in the mid-70s.

Corporal punishment at a grammar school

For about five years, I went to a state grammar school in the late 1970s, through to 1981. There was a marked division in attitude and appearance between the senior teaching staff who were products of the Second World War period and the more junior staff influenced by the liberality of the 1960s.

At the morning assembly, the headmaster in his black gown, standing at a lectern emblazoned with the school shield would read out the same list of names every Monday morning. These boys were told to come to his office after assembly. Nothing was said about would happen but we all knew it was the cane.

I discovered a letter in the attic of my parents’ house many years later from the school asking for consent to use corporal punishment on me if required. Like every parent in the school, mine had agreed. Not that they used any violence towards me at home, but there was this bizarre assumption that a good grammar school education needed the underlying threat of being whacked.

Corporal punishment from the headmaster involved a formal request to join him in his oak-panelled study for a caning. Mercifully this never happened to me. But there was also low level, heat of the moment, more informal physical punishment that today would be regarded as an assault. And I did fall victim to that on a couple of occasions. Nobody escaped.

PE teachers were free with their fist or boot on occasion while other teachers would “part your hair” by chucking the board rubber at your head. This was usually for chatting in class, yawning, or daydreaming. The board rubbers included a small hook and the fact somebody didn’t lose an eye is incredible looking back.

Teachers and pupils publicly condemn the cane in the 1970s

The 1970s was a pivotal decade between the old Britain and the new Britain. The last vestiges of a buttoned-up, repressed, deferential society were challenged in a decade that looks messy and troubled in retrospect but couldn’t have been anything else. A light was at last shone on all kinds of child abuse that has led to the false impression that 99% of abuse that ever occurred happened in that decade. It’s more that it wasn’t recognised or spoken of before then.

Corporal punishment became a flashpoint issue between radicals and traditionalists. The old guard fought a determined battle through the media to keep their beloved beatings. They often like to cite the example of the Isle of Man which still retained the “birch” to beat adult criminals. The last such beating was in 1976!!! Instead of deducing that physical punishment didn’t work – they instead concluded that it was required from cradle to grave.

Teachers opposed to corporate punishment formed a pressure group, The Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP) and in 1979 they wrote to all education bodies nationally to support the decision by the Inner London Education Authority (ILEA – later scrapped by the Thatcher government) to outlaw the cane.

The group called on the Secretary for Education Mark Carlisle MP, part of the newly elected Conservative government, to collate statistics on caning and “strapping” from school punishment books across the country. STOPP wanted to prove that far from corporal punishment being used sparingly, it was deployed habitually. And they made the point, which I would echo vigorously, that it didn’t matter if you were caned or not, it was the atmosphere created that affected all children.

“It can damage, through fear, the educational, psychological, and sexual development of any child, and, in particular, the nervous child, whether or not it is actually administered to that child.”

To be clear, that kind of view was widely derided in the Tory supporting press of the time. But it was echoed by a short-lived organisation called the National Union of School Students (NUSS). This was one of various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s to “unionise” pupils.

In 1977, the NUSS called on the Secretary for Education Shirley Williams MP, then part of the embattled Labour government, to stop the caning. NUSS described themselves as “the consumers of corporal punishment” representing those who actually got hit. Their research presented a grim picture where physical beating got worse the further north in England you went. So a child in Newcastle was far more likely to be caned than one in Bristol.

It gave the example of a male religious education teacher in the Midlands slippering girls with a gym shoe on the behind. “What sort of moral standards is he passing on?” The NUSS asked with justification. This example was completely credible given what I’d witnessed over the years and I’m not surprised that male teachers were assaulting girls in the name of classroom discipline.

Goodbye to 1970s corporal punishment in schools

It’s astonishing that it took until 1986 for corporal punishment to be outlawed in state schools in England and Wales. Unbelievably, the Thatcher government tried to resist abolition until the House of Lords voted narrowly by 94 to 92 to get rid of the canes and slippers. The United Kingdom was already under huge pressure to ban the practice after a 1982 ruling by the much maligned European Court of Human Rights.

The Tory argument against abolition boiled down to the usual stuff about freedom of choice and voluntary regulation. Schools, however, wanted clarity. A kind of laissez-faire arrangement where teachers made it up as they went along, deciding whether to cane or not, was favoured by nobody. The final vote in the House of Commons was not along party lines and 35 Tories voted for a ban while Thatcher and the Liberal leader David Steel did not vote.

Predictably, the ban on the cane provoked howls of outrage, normally expressed in the newspaper letters columns. How could a government that claims to be strong on law and order stop teachers using corporal punishment? That was the usual line. Inferring that naughty pupils were on the same level as burglars and murderers.

Some teachers in inner-city areas complained that without this sanction, classrooms would descend into anarchy. The authority relationship between pupil and teacher would be completely undermined. But other teachers and commentators suggested that good teaching was still possible without a length of wood in your hand.

A loophole in the 1986 legislation allowed private schools to continue with corporal punishment – and that included children whose places had been paid for with public money through the assisted places scheme. This loophole was only closed in 1998. But even in the 1980s, private schools were becoming increasingly reticent to re-live the Victorian heyday of terrorising pupils.

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