Debate on Corporal Punishment

Posted on September 15, 2012

The pupils ‘own’ the school as much as the teachers or the headmaster does, especially in government schools. The education transaction has to shift from the benefactor (teacher) and the beneficiary (pupil) to a motivator and facilitator and learner who all have rights in and responsibilities in ensuring that the educational transaction takes place. This put equal rights on both parties to create the environment in which learning takes place and in setting the ground rules for this process.

At present, school rules, norms and conventions define permitted ‘good’ and ‘proper behaviour for individual and groups of students. Maintaining discipline in schools is usually the prerogative of teachers, (often the sports master and administrators), all adults in positions of authority.

Frequently they also induct children as ‘monitors’ and ‘prefects’ and delegate this responsibility of maintaining ‘order’ and ensuring control. Punishment and reward play an important role in this. Those who implement rarely question the rules, or the implications that ensuring compliance may have for children’s overall development, self-esteem and also their interest in learning. Forms of disciplining such as corporal punishment, verbal and non-verbal abuse of children continue to feature in many schools, and are used to humiliate children in front of their peers. Yet many teachers and even parents still believe that such punishment is important, unaware of the immediate and long term detrimental effects of these practices.

It is important for teachers to reflect on the rationale that underlie rules and conventions that govern schools, and whether these are consistent with our aims for education.

For instance rules such as the length of the socks and the whiteness of the sports shoes are of no educationally defensible importance. Rules regarding maintaining silence in classrooms, answering ‘one at time’ and answering only if you know the right answer, can go against the values of equality and equal opportunity.

Such rules may also discourage processes that are integral to children’s learning, the development of a sense of community among peers though they may make the class ‘easy to manage’ for the teacher, and facilitate ‘covering the syllabus’.

Inculcating the value/habit of self-discipline is important for the systematic pursuit of learning and development of the child’s interests and potential. Discipline must enable performance of, and be conducive to, the task at hand, with rigour. It should enable freedom, choice and autonomy of the teacher and child. It is necessary to involve children themselves in evolving rules, so that they understand the rationale for a rule, and feel a sense of responsibility in ensuring that they are followed. This way they would also learn the process of setting codes of self governance and the skills required to participate in decision making and democratic functioning. Similarly, mechanisms for conflict resolution between teachers and students and among students could also be evolved by the children themselves. The teacher should ensure that there are as few rules as possible, and that only rules that can be reasonably followed are created. It does no one any good to humiliate children for breaking rules, particularly when there are good reasons for the rule being broken. For instance ‘noisy classrooms’ are frowned upon by teachers as well as headmasters; but it is possible that rather than the noise being evidence that the teacher is not in control, it may be evidence of a lively participatory class.

Similarly head masters can be unreasonably strict about punctuality. A child who is late for an examination on account of a traffic jam must not be penalised, and yet we find such rules being imposed in the name of higher values. Unreasonableness on the part of authorities in matters such as rules can demoralize children, their parents and also teachers. It may help to remember to first ask a child why he or she broke a rule, to listen to what they have to say, and then act accordingly. It is befitting a school head or teacher to exercise authority, rather than power. Arbitrariness and unreasonableness are characteristics of power, and are feared, not respected.

Systems for the participatory management of the school by children and school teachers and administrators need to be evolved. Children should be encouraged to elect their own representatives to children’s councils and similarly the teachers and administrators of a given school need to be organised themselves, so also the parents. These three parties need to come together in a common forum, such as the School Task Force or School Joint Action Committee. This Task Force or Committee should be the platform for developing plans, negotiating issues of concern and initiating joint action.

If we accept equal ownership of the school by teachers and pupils, this puts equal rights on both parties to construct the environment in which learning takes place and to set the ground rules for this process.