Gemma Fraser: Buckling up for proposed return of the dreaded belt

As UKIP pledges to bring back the tawse, Education Reporter Gemma Fraser wonders if pupils can benefit from corporal punishment

FOR decades, the humble belt struck fear into school children the length and breadth of the country.

The mere sight of one was enough to send a shiver down their spines as they anticipated what was to follow.

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For more than two decades, however, pupils in Scotland have been spared the terror of the belt, or tawse, after legislation was brought in banning its use in schools.

• Should the belt be reintroduced to improve discipline in Scots schools? Vote here

But one political party has revealed its desire to bring corporal punishment back into Scottish classrooms in a bid to improve discipline.

UKIP Scotland has announced that bringing back the belt will appear in its manifesto for next May's Holyrood election.

The party believes it will restore discipline in the classroom and form part of a wider policy to improve behaviour, including making it easier to expel pupils, the reintroduction of the 11-plus exam and a reduction in the school leaving age to 14.

But is reverting back to practices of previous decades really the way forward in providing the best education possible to children in the 21st century?

A poll carried out in 2008 by the Times Educational Supplement found that 22 per cent of the 6162 teachers surveyed supported the right to use corporal punishment in extreme cases.

Educational experts are less forthcoming about giving their backing to such a move. While some teachers may privately think corporal punishment would improve behaviour, the official view is that it would be an unacceptable measure.

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Alison Thornton, Edinburgh branch secretary of the EIS teaching union, says: "We live in the 21st century and teachers are committed to giving the pupils in their care the best educational experience possible. The use of physical punishment has no place in this process.

"What they are saying isn't moving with the times."

That said, there's no getting away from the problem of severe indiscipline in school, which often veers into the realms of physical attacks on teachers.

The Evening News revealed earlier this year that there were 1400 exclusions from Edinburgh's schools in 2008-9. The highest number - 505 - were for general or persistent disobedience, closely followed by 486 for the verbal abuse of staff.

The statistics also revealed a more worrying figure, that a total of 448 exclusions were made for the physical assault of a pupil or member of staff.

Peter Hogan, headmaster of Loretto School in Musselburgh, says discipline is "essential" in schools, but this must not be confused with physical violence against children. "Professional teachers have to maintain their own standards and moral values. We did not enter the profession because we want to hurt children," he says.

"We are here to help and fighting unruly conduct with violence seems an ugly short-term way to stop one problem and create another.

"Children want to be in an environment where they feel safe and secure. Allowing staff to hit children will destroy this bond of trust."

UKIP Scotland party treasurer Donald MacKay, who will be one of its regional list candidates at Holyrood next year, says discipline in schools is a "major headache" for teachers.

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He says: "We need to give schools the right to permanently expel recalcitrant pupils and, in a sparing sense, be able to use the belt where appropriate.

"No other party will offer these options in next year's election."

On that point at least, he is almost certainly right. Although there may be many people out there who believe bringing back the belt is what "youths today" need to instill a bit of respect, the move would receive such mass opposition that it would never see the light of day.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign For Real Education, agrees that while the "majority" of people probably support the principle of corporal punishment, it is unlikely to ever be re-introduced.

"I don't really think it's practicable with European laws and human rights," he says.

"I think it's a bit of a non-starter, but the majority of people probably sympathise and agree with the sentiments behind it."

He adds: "A lot of young bullies would benefit a great deal from a little bit of physical punishment because they think they can get away with murder."

While Mr Seaton's comment may be applauded by some, even murderers have human rights and Scotland has moved on considerably from the days of corporal, and capital, punishment.