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Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?

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Once considered an integral part of the education and discipline of children nationwide, corporal punishment is now almost unanimously opposed by social scientists who argue that the negative impacts far outweigh any marginal positive benefits.

And yet, as a recent Times Educational Supplement survey reveals, nearly half of all parents would support the reintroduction of this archaic disciplinary method into our school system. How can a practice that was outlawed in government-funded schools over twenty years ago still warrant this level of public debate? What is it exactly that people find so appealing about corporal punishment?Caning - An acceptable punishment?

One answer to this is that parents supporting the practice associate the use of corporal punishment with the much celebrated ‘good old days’ of British schooling. Their reasoning appears to be that by reintroducing this method of discipline, there would begin an educational overhaul that would bring back the fondly remembered jolly hockey sticks, gung-ho attitude of their youth. However, the fact is that this world of schooling was marred with its own problems, and that the so-called ‘golden days’ of British education never really existed.

As Chris Keates, General Secretary of the teachers’ union NASUWT explains, there is a” mythology” that has developed in the national consciousness surrounding the state of education in 1960s and 1970s. The reality is that vandalism and assaults against teachers were common features of life, and that you were more likely to be beaten with a hockey stick than to be playing with one. Instead of a room full of glowing, obedient, children, a teacher in ‘the good old days’ taught to naughty and well-behaved children, just as they do today. Parents harkening after the idyllic Britain of their childhoods’ need to accept that their view of history is most definitely rose-tinted.

The fact is that the parents supporting corporal punishment are not afraid of the children misbehaving in the classrooms of Britain; they are worried about those misbehaving on the streets. In light of the recent riots and Education Secretary Michael Gove’s comments on the “educational underclass” of youths not attending school, it is no wonder that parents living in Britain today have this view of children and young adults being a group of rowdy, out of control hooligans. “They are generation of yobs and hoodies,” says one anonymous commenter on BBC News.

Well, even if we were an entire generation intent on wreaking havoc and causing social disruption, authorising teachers to beat it out of us while we attempt to succeed at school is unlikely to be the way forward. What needs to happen is for parents and teachers to present a united, authoritative front to those young people prone to disruptive or damaging behavior. All too often teachers are left without the support from parents of their most troublesome students and so, as one teacher puts it, “any disciplinary progress is undone once they step outside of the school gates.” How can progress be made when parents are not taking responsibility for their child’s actions?

I do not deny that a level of reform must be implemented. A school system cannot survive, and much less thrive, if as the survey reveals, 91% of parents believe that teachers are fearful of their children. Nor can it be expected to progress in any constructive way if teachers face constant red tape in even the most basic of disciplinary procedures. But I think it is nothing short of ludicrous to think that the answer could lie in corporal punishment.

Not only are there no statistics that show any positive correlation between the use of corporal punishment and improved classroom behavior, but it would appear that parents are less supportive of the practice when confronted with the harsh reality of its implications. Following the question on whether or not they support corporal punishment in schools, parents were asked about the actual methods they would condone. In response to using either “caning or smacking” to disciplining their children, only 40% of parents responded positively, with the approval rating dropping to just 21% when asked about methods that embarrass or humiliate students. So what, exactly, do they want teachers to do?

Without a supportive majority, any kind of clear consensus on its implementation and a scientific community that condones its reintroduction, it is unlikely that the debate on corporal punishment will go any further. Instead, what we should focus on is what this survey tells us about the state of the current school system, and more significantly, the attitude of parents towards it.

So perhaps students do need to be reminded of “who’s the boss” as Mr. Gove suggests. But what they most definitely do not need is a teacher standing there, cane and hand, ready to show them.

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