Justifying Corporal Punishment

Andrew Burchell, University of Warwick


For a person of my generation (born 1992), corporal punishment was something of the past – although I doubt I ever suspected quite how recently that past was at the time – described in primary school history classes in the manner of ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-you’. One often had the impression that some teachers would have loved to still be able to use it, particularly men of the old-major type. The thought of analysing its history occurred to me when I was mid-way through an undergraduate degree and I had the great fortune to be able to explore the vast amount of trade union and educational papers held in University of Warwick’s Modern Records Centre. Of particular interest to me were teaching union records, such as those of the NUT or the Association of Assistant Mistresses, which contained ample documentation on union-led initiatives to resist limitations on corporal punishment right up to the 1980s.

Fast-forwarding to the tentative beginnings of my postgraduate research, and I realised that my approach should begin by asking the question not of why the practice ended, but why it continued for so long in Britain (1986). What was it about teachers in Britain that enabled them to successfully justify its continuance? Why, in an education system that appears on first glance to have become more progressive and child-centred over the twentieth century, was corporal punishment so defended? Stranger yet, why, at exactly the moment of the political right’s flourishing in the mid-1980s, should the defence of traditional order and discipline lose steam?

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Immersion in further archives, written treatises on discipline, and guidebooks for teachers on the law, gave insights onto teachers’ internal debates on the issue. I argue that it was primarily their in loco parentis position (the legal doctrine granting those who care for children the same rights as a parent) which mattered most. This served two functions: one literal, the other metaphorical. By delegating parental authority, teachers were able to position corporal punishment in the school as a necessity for as long as its use continued in the home. They were also able to construct their role through the metaphorical prism of parenthood, seeing their relationship to the child as one that was more personal and involved. Where teachers did use corporal punishment, they suggested, it was done in full cognisance of the child’s individuality and as a way of reasserting the moral economy of classroom order. This latter point was the legacy of progressivism, orienting the school towards a family structure and seeing discipline as a positive, even liberatory, experience for the child.

By contrast, post-war parents were more vociferous in defending their own rights, and were able to successfully mobilise against these practices. Teachers were not in the privileged position that they might have liked to think. The contradictions inherent in their arguments about parenthood were increasingly latched on to by anti-corporal punishment campaigning organisations – the major one of whom, STOPP, was founded in 1968. Moving alongside more family-centred, individualistic policies in the 1970s, they successfully militated against the ‘delegation’ of parental disciplinary powers. Finally, the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights in the 1982 ‘Campbell and Cosans’ case obliged the UK government to consider some form of legislation on the issue.

The divorce of physical chastisement from punishment in the home is revealing here. There is no real empirical evidence to hand on this, although anecdotal evidence (when discussing these questions with friends and relatives for instance) suggest that its incidence has been declining. But there is a far from clear picture of the state of its use in the home prior to the 1970s, despite Laura King’s excellent work in Family Men. The 1970s-1980s opposition ‘from below’ (led, in reality, by middle-class parents) does nothing to challenge a parent’s right to use physical violence against a child; practices which, unlike school punishment, remain hidden and difficult to regulate by law. Moreover, is there any evidence that what has replaced corporal punishment is any better for children? The rising tide of ‘new’ discipline – as George Duoblys characterises it in a recent LRB piece – similarly questions how much has, in fact, changed. Teachers may no longer be able to hit or smack children, but this has not necessarily heralded shifts towards more humane treatment.

My work on corporal punishment has since been expanded to include the history of disciplinary theories and approaches in schools more generally. From this perspective, I hope to develop further understanding of how teachers interacted with other professions and with parents in developing approaches to controlling children – and specifically adolescents – over the course of the twentieth century. Doing so can contribute to an explanation of how these methods have changed up to and after the discontinuance of corporal punishment in schools.


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About the Author: Andrew Burchell recently submitted his PhD thesis at the University of Warwick, funded by the Wellcome Trust, which examines the relationship between school discipline and the development of theories surrounding adolescence in twentieth-century Britain. He is the author of ‘In Loco Parentis, Corporal Punishment and the Moral Economy of Discipline in English Schools, 1945–1986’, Cultural and Social History, vol. 15, no. 4 (2018), pp. 551-570.

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