An old chestnut, perhaps, but one which does have a habit of returning with unerring regularity. The Herald reports that UKIP Scotland are calling for a return of corporal punishment to our schools, in an attempt to restore discipline and win votes.
As has been well documented, it was a Scottish case which led to the demise of the use of corporal punishment in schools across the United Kingdom. The use of any corporal punishment in schools (public or independent) is now forbidden by domestic law (s.16, Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc. Act 2000) – but could the tawse really be brought back into use? Well, perhaps…
In the celebrated case of Campbell and Cosans v. The United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights determined that the use of corporal punishment in state schools did not amount to a breach of Article 3 of the Convention (prohibition on torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment).
The Court observed:
“Jeffrey Cosans may well have experienced feelings of apprehension or disquiet when he came close to an infliction of the tawse, but such feelings are not sufficient to amount to degrading treatment, within the meaning of Article 3 (art. 3).
“The same applies, a fortiori, to Gordon Campbell since he was never directly threatened with corporal punishment. It is true that counsel for his mother alleged at the hearings that group tension and a sense of alienation in the pupil are induced by the very existence of this practice but, even if this be so, these effects fall into a different category from humiliation or debasement.
“To sum up, no violation of Article 3 (art. 3) is established.”
However, the Court did find that a breach of the parents’ rights to ensure that the education their children received was in accordance with their religious or philosophical convictions (Article 2 of Protocol 1). The parents’ opposition to corporal punishment fell into this category. That remains the only basis on which corporal punishment in schools breaches the Convention. It is seen, oddly, as a breach of the parents’ human rights – but not of the child’s!
Therefore, if there were unanimous parental support for the idea of corporal punishment in schools, or if it were only applied to those children whose parents had consented, then the Scottish Parliament could legislate to bring back the dreaded tawse to Scottish schools. Whether this would be a popular measure among teachers is less clear.
Of course, there was an attempt some years ago by a group of Christian schools (and parents at said schools) to reverse the UK Government’s extension of the ban on corporal punishments to their (independent) schools on the basis that it interfered with their freedom to discipline their pupils biblically (i.e. not “sparing the rod” – Proverbs 13:24). The House of Lords rejected their claims (R. v. Secretary of State, ex parte Williamson). After all, noted the Court, the parents of the children were at liberty to hit their children at home. Parents remain at liberty to do so to this day.
- Michael Gove: ‘I was beaten at school for rudeness’ (independent.co.uk)
- The Cane and the Tawse in Scottish Schools (corpun.com)