Ironically it was that very English newspaper, The Guardian, which provided lots of Scots with the opportunity to tell the world about their experience of the belt in Scottish schools.
Its columnist Ian Jack was responding to an article I had written in the Scottish Review. In it I argue that state schools in Scotland used corporal punishment much more than their English equivalents and on much younger pupils. I also argued that the whole system of punishment in Scottish schools was designed to instill fear. Recent research shows just how toxic fear can be to young, developing minds.
Jack, a Scot himself, did not take issue with the prevalence of corporal punishment in Scottish schools though he (wrongly) asserted that girls didn’t get belted. The main point of his column was to argue that being given the belt had felt ‘unfair’ but that it had ‘done me no harm’.
Within an hour of people reading The Guardian over breakfast the paper’s website was being inundated by comments. In fact, on the Saturday Jack’s column appeared, they were coming in at a rate of around 200 an hour. By Sunday evening there were 1,849 responses and Guardian officials disabled the comments facility.
I have not managed to read all these comments but I’ve read enough to know that the vast majority disagreed with Jack. Indeed, The Guardian ‘picked’ the following comment by an Australian to put at the end of the article:
The number of traumatic experiences being poured out on these pages in the last few hours shows just how harmful it was/is. Hopefully some are finding comfort in sharing stories but don’t forget there’s help out there if you’re upset by any of this – and you’re not alone.
Some pointed out wryly that if anyone says that they weren’t harmed by corporal punishment it’s incontrovertible evidence that they were.
The Guardian received countless comments from Scots on their experience of the belt even though the newspaper is not widely read north of the border. What’s more, the readership tends to be educated, if not intellectual. Yet here were people who had presumably done fairly well at school recounting their negative experiences of corporal punishment. Can you imagine what the response would have been like if it had come from adults who had hated school, who were not motivated by academic work and who were more likely to make errors for which they could have been belted?
I have met Ian on a few occasions and I know him to be a decent, gentle man. He has considerable empathy. Yet in this column he directed that empathy towards the teachers and not the pupils. At one point he writes:
I sympathised with a good friend, a teacher in a rough Glasgow school, who said: ‘Basically it’s a matter of convenience … when you’re faced with a class of 40 15-year-old boys who don’t want to be there anyway, pelting you with paper balls, the quickest, surest way to get some kind of attention is to belt somebody. Then you can get on with the history of U-boat warfare or why the UN is a good thing.’
What puzzles me about this is that Ian acknowledges in his column that other European countries abolished corporal punishment in schools. In some cases they did so centuries before Scotland was forced to abandon the practice by the European Court of Human Rights. So how were they managing to keep order in class without resorting to the belt? Has Ian no understanding that there are other ways of fostering respect for the teaching staff or for learning itself?
Another of The Guardian’s ‘picked’ comments shows how this could be done:
The best teacher at my school by a country mile was also the strictest and best respected. She never even shouted let alone hit anyone. Her method was simple. Respect, for ourselves, our education and for others. She would ask us to stand up when she entered the room, and we did, only for her not any other teacher. She would always begin the lesson on the right note- professional, prepared and really caring about our progress, stretching us. Her great care for our education and the technical brilliance she gave to her lessons (English Literature) made everyone in that class improve. And our grades improved across other subjects as well. There is absolutely no place for hitting in society and that includes children.
Whatever way you look at it Scottish education’s ‘addiction’ to the belt (to quote Ian Jack) was an indictment of the whole system. It institutionalised violence towards children, as young as five. It failed to understand that there are other ways to regulate behaviour and motivate young people to learn. The fact that young children and adolescents were not only punished for gross disobedience but also minor misdemeanours and errors in schoolwork is, to my mind, unforgivable.
I partly agree with the respondent who wrote: ‘Nicola Sturgeon should stand up in parliament and apologise to all those Scots who were physically abused by the teaching profession for “crimes” such as failing their spelling test or forgetting their PE kit.
Fear of failure
From the comments it’s also clear I’m not alone in thinking that the Scottish education system led to a fear of making mistakes and affected young people’s relationships with adults. This then impeded confidence. Indeed, one reader, recounting the extent of corporal punishment in her Dungannon primary school, stated: ‘Like Scotland, Northern Irish kids grew up shy, unconfident and angry.’
When I wrote The Scots’ Crisis of Confidence I underlined the common Scots’ fear of making mistakes or ‘getting it wrong’. I didn’t, however, link this to the extensive use of the belt in Scottish schools. I simply didn’t know that most European countries had outlawed corporal punishment decades, if not centuries, before and that Scotland was an outlier. I thought that hitting children was ‘normal’.
Until I started talking to people about their school experiences for my new book Hiding in Plain Sight I didn’t know that corporal punishment in Scottish schools was so pervasive. I didn’t realise how authoritarian the Scotland of my youth had been.
Now I know better. And I think that growing up in a belt happy culture has done me and countless other Scots harm. It has also had a negative, and an unexpected, effect on Scottish culture – a topic I’ll return to in a few months time.