x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

When six of the best won't do, time for a softer tack?

After this summer's riots, the perennial British debate on corporal punishment in schools has taken on a new level of significance.

September is an old-fashioned month here in the UK, delivering the same timeless milestones of the advancing year - the end of the cricket season, the turning of the leaves to gold and brown - and a renewed debate as to whether secondary schools should restore corporal punishment.

With both the autumn term and political conference season upon us, the question "to cane or not to cane?" has flared afresh. Yet it can't be a coincidence that after this summer's riots, in which alarm and civil disorder briefly flickered across a street near you, the subject is being discussed with even more intensity than in years past.

The wellspring is a report commissioned by the Times Literary Supplement, the results of which are - if you'll excuse the phrase - most striking. Of 2,000 families questioned, 49 per cent declared they would like to see the return of the days when six of the best, or even a good clip round the ear, was reintroduced as a deterrent to unruly behaviour in the classroom.

The survey coincides just as the education secretary, Michael Gove, is launching his own campaign to improve discipline in schools, on the principle that children need to know who's boss - a concept most people agree broke down entirely during those nights of urban mayhem back in early August.

Mr Gove is likely to receive a standing ovation from his Conservative party when he trots out such sentiments at the party's forthcoming conference in Manchester (scene of some of the worst rioting). But for once there seems to be wide and genuine support behind his initiative. For the Times survey not only also found that 93 per cent of parents thought teachers should indeed be given "more authority to maintain classroom discipline", but so did 68 per cent of pupils questioned as well.

The image of terrified schoolboys surreptitiously trying to stuff exercise books down the back of their trousers while a malevolent headmaster (usually depicted wearing a mortar board, gown and a wicked smile) stands over them, cane in hand, may be an enduring image of British life.

Indeed, even in my own school days during the late 1970s I recall fellow-students occasionally being summoned to the office of my headmaster, the imposing Harry Brogden, for six of the best; and while the miscreants may have subsequently displayed their bruises as badges of honour in the playground once their ordeal was over, the very prospect of such a punishment ever being meted out on my own posterior was sufficient to render me a model pupil.

But to many, the notion of adults swishing a stick onto the rumps of defenceless adolescents as a way of achieving obedience seems grotesque.

Corporal punishment was officially banned in the UK in 1984, after its use was ruled degrading by European human rights legislation. Chris Keats, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, reacted to Mr Gove's latest initiative by declaring: "In a civilised society, no one should be advocating hitting children with sticks as a means of improving behaviour." In other words, inculcation of a proper sense of right and wrong can only be achieved by reasoned argument rather than brute force.

But I wonder whether there's a more thorny issue beneath the debate. For with every mobile phone now a video camera and the slightest restraining hand on a shoulder able to be interpreted by a savvy schoolkid as an assault, many teachers feel outwitted by teenagers who may not be able to spell properly but who know every paragraph of the European Convention of Human Rights.

The most notable thing about my own headmaster, old Harry, was something he revealed to me some years after he'd retired, and by which time I myself was in early middle age. Despite having employed the cane during his long and distinguished career, he assured me he never once had a complaint from either student or parent.

"The rules were clear and we all knew them" was his conclusion. Which is perhaps a situation we're all desperate to regain in these socially complicated times.

One final thought. Please, if you ever run into him, don't tell him I referred to him as "Old Harry". I wouldn't want to get into trouble.


Michael Simkins is a writer and actor based in London