A ban on corporal punishment in schools cannot be an overnight measure

Dear Editor,

Corporal punishment has been with society ever since man began to walk this Earth. Corporal punishment in our schools in Guyana goes back to the earliest days of formal education where it was, for the most part, acceptable in the homes as well as the schools and where there was a correlation of the efforts of parents and educators to discipline students. It was a time when teachers enjoyed enormous respect in the community and parents supported them unquestionably, and when there was hardly ever any dissent against the use of corporal punishment in schools. Indeed, heads of schools coming to a new school or community received a warmer welcome if they came with a reputation of not sparing the rod.

And while modern thinking seems to go against the use of corporal punishment as a means of discipline, there is yet a large number of people all over the world for whom corporal punishment is an essential tenet of the Christian faith and for whom the absence of some physical form of discipline makes it harder to enforce the rules of conduct which are a sine qua non in the training of our children.

And while we recognize Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the issue is how best it can be implemented having regard to the need to maintain discipline in schools.

I commend our educators who have been seeking the views of the Guyanese public as regards the retaining of corporal punishment in schools. Simultaneously, I wish to posit that there is need to examine available empirical evidence which would inform us whether corporal punishment as a form of discipline has been effective; whether it still has a role in good child rearing; whether it should be phased out allowing other measures to be put in place; or removed from the menu of measures employed until now, to ensure children obey and respect authority and become responsible students and disciplined products of society.

I like thousands of other Guyanese attended primary and secondary School in the 1950s and 1960s at a time when acquiring an education was viewed as the major avenue to success and status in society, and consequently the motivation to learn was probably greater among all classes than is the case today.

People’s needs then were simple: no brand name boots; no TVs with dubious messages and alien values in our homes diverting our children from reading and doing homework. As children we were schooled and denounced by parents, teachers, relatives, friends, neighbours when we were delinquent. The cane was then the ultimate sanction in instances of serious breaches of school and home rules. And most of us have no feelings of regret because these measures have contributed positively to our upbringing and have helped to shape us into better persons with no ill effects. Indeed, many have publicly sung praises for the use of corporal punishment as a last resort measure that has brought some positive results in the form of improved discipline and conduct. Albeit these good practices appear to be dying.

The rise of indiscipline in schools began in the 1980s at a time when our country’s economy was performing poorly; when parents went to school not to check on their children’s conduct and performance but to verbally abuse and to beat up teachers; when adults were afraid to reprimand children even for serious acts of misconduct; when mothers began to go out to work in large numbers to supplement the family income, leaving the responsibility for the upbringing of their children to maids/servants and obviously changing the role of the parents vis-à-vis the parents of the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s.  The responsibility for the education and upbringing of our children was no longer a community responsibility.

Our children’s attitude and behaviour were now largely influenced by what they saw on the television  and therefore by the cultural norms of foreign societies, namely, the desire to enjoy goods and services others were enjoying without having to work hard to achieve these.

Today the headteacher of a school whips a student to discipline him/her and we cry: ‘Child abuse!’ We emphasize the rights of children but not the duties of parents nor the responsibilities of society. We spare the rod in school but punish our children through the judicial system. Undoubtedly, this is in large measure responsible for the increase in school drop-outs unfit for the world of work and higher education and reverting to a life of crime.

I would wish to see the phasing out of corporal punishment as one of several measures used in schools to discipline students.  We must not take wholesale some values and principles from other societies and transpose them into our society. Note that the same people who are telling us to abolish corporal punishment in our schools are having tremendous problems in their own jurisdictions and are struggling with indiscipline in their schools, viz the USA, UK.

Corporal punishment must not be seen as an alternative, but must complement other measures of discipline. We do need a bit of the rod to help our children walk the proverbial straight and narrow path.

Let us not spare the rod, but let the rod be used sparingly. Corporal punishment does not mean physical abuse. Indeed our laws are quite clear about abuse by teachers and parents. The use of the cane must be controlled and employed after less stringent measures have failed. The Ministry of Education’s Manual of Guidelines for the maintenance of order and discipline in schools is clear on this procedure, moreso as it relates to the appropriateness and reasonableness of the use of corporal punishment.

There has been much talk about alternative forms of discipline, viz detention, denial of certain privileges, benefits, etc. However there is empirical evidence that children, aware that they cannot be visited with corporal punishment, couldn’t care less that they were denied certain privileges.

Many have argued that the use of the cane does contribute to a display of violent behaviour by the children whom they say have been victims of what they term “physical abuse”. I do believe however that if corporal punishment increased the propensity to violence among students, some of us would be serial killers today.

The Guyanese culture has embraced the practice of corporal punishment for decades. Indeed, it has become an integral aspect of our upbringing and many students of yesteryear have actually attributed their success in large measure to the application of corporal punishment as a form of discipline.

Given the present disciplinary situation in many of our schools, it would seem that the replacement of corporal punishment with alternative forms of discipline not in place, does reduce the range of sanctions immediately available to the school and would result in a total collapse of order in the classroom. Learning cannot take place in an indisciplined environment.

We could debate whether to cane or not when in fact we still have class sizes that are above the recommended size, and when teachers consequently and out of frustration leave their classrooms unsupervised. Most violent student misconduct takes place when classes are unsupervised.

Today in many homes children are left unattended at home and this has resulted in serious deficiencies in parenting that must be urgently addressed. It is this scenario that leads me to determine that the abrupt removal of corporal punishment in schools could lead to the unacceptable practice of reprimands and verbal abuse by students if alternative forms of discipline are not contemporaneously put in place. We do not want to move from one contentious issue to another.

The removal of corporal punishment in schools must be over such a period as will allow teachers to be adequately trained to deal with indisciplined students using alternative sanctions. In this regard, there is need not only for teachers but parents also to be guided on the proper ways to teach and to discipline children. In this way, we can bridge the gap between the home and the school by coming up with a consensus on matters such as corporal punishment. We can also direct our attention and energies, our resources and our fury and agitate against the more serious forms of child abuse such as incest, sexual molestation, treatment of our street children, etc.

 

The focus must be on a gradual change of emphasis from the use of corporal punishment to the alternatives being emphasized, and this new focus must involve parents, teachers, education administrators, schools welfare officers, counsellors, students and the broader community. They must be trained and assigned to schools or clusters of schools and tasked, inter alia, with taking back responsibility from society for our children’s upbringing.

The ban on corporal punishment in schools cannot be an overnight measure but must be examined in conjunction with the setting up of the necessary institutions, the training of required personnel and the realization that until alternatives to its use are in place and working satisfactorily, corporal punishment has an acceptable role in the discipline of children.

 

Yours faithfully,

Norman Whittaker

Former Minister of Local

Government

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