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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 24 Nov 1977

Vol. 302 No. 1

Adjournment Debate. - Corporal Punishment in Schools.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter of corporal punishment in the schools. I should like to thank Deputy Keating, whose question on yesterday's Order Paper first brought this aspect of the problem to the attention of the House. The House is indebted to him for having done so. I had intended to refer in more detail to the case he was talking about on that occasion, but as he is here himself I would propose to give him some time at the end of my speech.

The Deputy will understand that he has 20 minutes and the Minister has ten minutes to reply.

I am bringing up this subject not as an individual or on my own behalf; I not only have the support of the Labour Party but I am raising the matter at the express wish of the Labour Party. The policy of my party has always been fair and unambiguous. It is based on the creation of a humane and co-operative school environment in which any form of discipline which involves the infliction of pain by one human being on another is necessarily excluded.

I should like to emphasise that in bringing up the question at this time I am not in any way opposed to any individual teacher or teaching organisation. It is my personal experience that the huge majority of the people who do a difficult job in teaching in our schools, often under severe handicaps of large class sizes and so on, also consider the infliction of physical pain on children as something which is abhorrent to them and which they never practise in their personal teaching.

To me it is a matter of regret that despite the intermittent debate on this area which has been taking place for many years, no previous holder of the Education portfolio has to my knowledge ever expressed even a personal opinion in favour of the abolition of corporal punishment in schools. Not only that, some Members of this House and some previous holders of that portfolio have gone on record as supporting it in certain instances. The penultimate Minister for Education did so and yesterday in the House the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education spoke in very similar terms. I believe that in this respect our politicians are very much behind the times. They are not as abreast as they might be of public opinion generally and opinion within the teaching profession. I find it sad that this issue has not been adequately faced.

The main area referred to in yesterday's question related to a school which is effectively under the general oversight of the Department of Education, as are all national schools. It is about national schools that I should like to speak first. The administration of discipline in national schools is governed by the rules and regulations for the conduct of national schools issued from time to time by the Department. The most recent set of such rules and regulations were issued in 1965 and were signed shortly before he left office by the then Minister for Education, Dr. Hillery, now Uachtarán na hÉireann. Those regulations provide for a number of possible situations. They are drafted with the obvious intention of giving the whole area and problem a sympathetic and sensitive treatment.

Paragraph No. 130 (1) states:

Teachers should have a lively regard for the improvement and general welfare of their pupils, treat them with kindness combined with firmness and should aim at governing them through their affections and reason and not by harshness and severity. Ridicule, sarcasm or remarks likely to undermine a pupil's self-confidence should be avoided.

I do not believe any Member of this House would quarrel with that statement.

Paragraph 130 (2) states:

Corporal punishment should be administered only in cases of serious misbehaviour and should not be administered for mere failure at lessons.

Paragraph 130 (3) states:

Corporal punishment should be administered only by the principal teacher or other member of the school staff authorised by the manager for the purpose.

Paragraph 130 (4) states:

Any teacher who inflicts improper or excessive punishment will be regarded as guilty of conduct unbefitting a teacher and will be subject to severe disciplinary action.

It is instructive to compare these with the previous regulations which were in force between 1946 and 1965. Two of the 1946 regulations have disappeared. One of them forbids teachers to carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment; another provides that the boxing of children's ears, the pulling of their hair or similar ill-treatment is absolutely forbidden and will be visited with severe penalties. In some respects the 1965 regulations were an improvement on earlier ones but the dropping of these provisions may have been a disimprovement.

One of the great difficulties in discussing corporal punishment in primary schools is that we literally do not know what the practice is. It was the practice in the early years of this century for all schools to keep punishment books in which physical punishments had to be recorded. This practice is still maintained in the sister island across the water. Punishment books are not now kept and the argument about the advisability or otherwise of corporal punishment and the extent to which it is practised is impoverished by a serious lack of information about what is going on.

I was intrigued yesterday to hear the Parliamentary Secretary tell the House that he actually had direct knowledge of the number of occasions on which corporal punishment was used in the institution which was the subject of yesterday's question. I would be very interested to know if the Department, in respect of this or any other institution, have required the managers and organisers to record the administration of physical punishment. I am not in favour of physical punishment, but if it is to be administered then at the very minimum there should be a record of when it is administered, who administers it and the reasons for administering it. It is a poor substitute for an enlightened policy but even that is better than the present situation which involves people arguing on the impressions of general belief, very often with a considerable lack of supporting evidence.

The situation in secondary schools is not governed by any regulations of the Department and this is also a pity. A survey carried out some time ago by the Irish Union of School Students, whose total reliability might be called in question but nevertheless it gives us some kind of picture of the situation. In well over three quarters of the schools surveyed physical punishment was carried out and this was so in almost nine-tenths of the boys' schools. In 60 per cent of the schools such physical punishment was confined to pupils at or below intermediate or group certificate level. The obvious inference of that is not that the pupils get better as they get older but that the physical risk of retaliation to the person administering the assault is considerably greater. I fail to see any other reason why what is apparently commonplace for a child of eight should be less commonplace for a child of 18.

That is disgraceful.

I should be interested to know why the Minister thinks it is disgraceful.

Because I am experienced in schools.

If the Minister is prepared to say that children over 16 are better behaved than children under 16, I am prepared to accept that.

I am saying that they are more mature. They know what it is all about.

Another interesting fact in the survey, on which the Minister will also have the opportunity to comment, is that apparently no corporal punishment of any kind took place in co-educational schools and in my view this is yet another argument in favour of such schools. In vocational schools, which are under the direct control of the Minister, physical punishment is outlawed. If it happens, it is not sanctioned by the Minister and I imagine he would be very disappointed to hear of any such punishment taking place illegally in any such schools.

It is true to say that we are virtually an anomaly in western Europe in regard to corporal punishment. The United Kingdom and Ireland are the only Common Market countries that still allow it. Even in Britain, in primary schools under the control of the Inner London Education Authority, they have banned it for some time. We are the only country in Europe with a substantial Catholic population that still allows it. In the godless country of Sweden it has been forbidden since 1966. In the equally secular country of Finland it has been forbidden since before the turn of the century. We should examine the insights and, if necessary, the legislation of some of these other countries to see if we can learn something from them.

In 1600 I might have had a problem in being a politician who was arguing for the abolition of corporal punishment in schools. In 1600, society was generally more violent than it is today, and violence was an accepted fact of life. But violence is not now an accepted fact of life. Unfortunately, it may be a fact of many aspects of contemporary living, but it is not an accepted one. It is reprehended, it is condemned, and it is visited with all sorts of legal sanctions. The idea of violence is increasingly in conflict with current practice in families and with current practice in the rest of the civilised world. We do have a particular problem in Ireland where we have a long history of violence. That problem is that for many years now we have, quite rightly, set our faces against the legitimacy of violence as a method of achieving public and political objectives. Why, then, should it be any more acceptable in the pursuit of private and personal aims? We are in danger of creating a kind of schizophrenic society because, while it is commonplace that the social problems of tomorow are bred in the homes and schools of today, we refuse to draw the obvious conclusions.

I believe very strongly that violence of such a personal kind is, or should be, an anachronism. That is because we are more conscious nowadays of the dignity of the individual. We are also more conscious of the dangers to the person who administers and to the person who receives such physical punishment. The danger resides chiefly in this: that as the use of violence becomes more and more of an anachronism, the circumstances in which it is administered will become more and more imbued with guilt. The more the sense of guilt the more the psychological damage.

In the brief time at my disposal I hope I have made a case for a totally different approach to the question of physical punishment in schools. I should like to end by making some concrete suggestions to the Minister for Education. First of all, I should like him to see what he can do to remedy what seems to be a general lack of awareness of parental rights in this matter. If I am correct, it is open to any individual parent to insist that his child should not be subjected to corporal punishment at school. I believe it is also open to the parents whose children attend a national school to jointly decide that corporal punishment should not form part of the regime at that school. If I am correct, perhaps the Minister could take it upon himself to circularise management boards and inform them of this option that exists for them.

Secondly, I would ask the Minister to find out through his inspectors, or whatever means he wants to employ, exactly what the current situation is with regard to the frequency and type of corporal punishment that may be administered in all our schools.

Thirdly, I understand that the rules for primary schools are currently being redrafted. I would urge the Minister to seriously consider using this opportunity, which has not arisen for more than ten years, to put an end to the practice which makes us unique in western Europe. I suspect that Government policy in regard to corporal punishment has lagged behind public opinion for some time, and now is the time for the Government to give a lead.

I support Deputy Horgan's comprehensive and well structured appeal. It is not my intention to assign blame in regard to this matter because I have no doubt that the Minister will consider the appeal on its merits.

My view is that it is a shameful thing for a nation at this stage of its evolution to be in the position where the State appears to support the infliction of pain on children, allegedly for educational and rehabilitation purposes, without any monitoring process or any system of inspection. That is wrong because it is educationally unsound and there is no evidence available to show that it has proved successful in reforming these alleged errant boys. The infliction of pain per se does no more than diminish the dignity of the individual, whether it be an adult, or a man in prison, about which, quite rightly, there would be an outcry, or a child who is in effect orphaned.

I would ask the Minister to consider Deputy Horgan's suggestions. I am particularly interested in the involvement of parents in the process.

I am pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the subject. Deputy Horgan referred in grateful tones to the fact that Deputy Keating had a special question on this matter for the Parliamentary Secretary to answer. Deputy Horgan must have also seen that Deputy Noel Browne has a Private Members' Motion on the Order Paper, and he might have given him some credit. Deputy Noel Browne has also got a question down to me on this matter. We can give Deputy Browne a little credit for the matter being under discussion.

Deputy Horgan said it was the express wish of the Labour Party to have a clear and unambiguous policy on this matter and for this I recommend them. They managed to keep it in deep freeze for four-and-a-quarter years when they had the power to make it effective. I am not apportioning any of the blame for that to Deputy Horgan who was not here to see to it that the Labour Deputies refused to support a Government which did not put what was the clear and unambiguous policy of the Labour Party into effect. I should like to pay tribute to Deputy Horgan in that his treatment of the subject matter was not emotional. Sometimes this subject causes a great deal of emotion and reason does not surface at all. The Parliamentary Secretary, Deputy Tunney, gave a clear and humane answer to the question put down to him and I do not want anybody to try to hang any kind of violence around the neck of the Parliamentary Secretary.

Deputy Horgan may have gone a little off when he started indulging himself as an amateur psychologist at the end of what was a good speech. He broadened the debate and attributed violence in after life to the alleged violence in our schools. I do not think he or a professional psychologist would be able to prove that one comes from the other.

The time available to me to reply to this debate is not adequate for the purpose of dealing in any satisfactory way with a subject as broad as this question of corporal punishment in our schools. I would have preferred to have had a debate on it and had we waited for Deputy Noel Browne's Private Members' Motion to be reached we would have had a clear debate on it and that might have been preferable. If a debate of this nature is to take place I would prefer that it should be in circumstances where it can be comprehensively dealt with and the various aspects of the matter fully discussed.

This is not an issue where the Minister for Education can say he is for or against corporal punishment. It is not a simplistic issue like that. Any Minister for Education in modern times would prefer to be in a position where there was no necessity to speak on the subject and where in practice corporal punishment did not have any place in the day to day work of the schools. However, I am not prepared to allow myself be placed in the category of people who would wish to denigrate our teachers—Deputy Horgan did not do that openly or overtly —our school management boards and all connected with the administration of our schools through mischievous and unfair allegations in relation to what takes place in those schools. We are talking about a systematic society where corporal punishment is gradually phased out. This reflects developing attitudes of communities and parents in general, and in the context of education it reflects an increased professionalism among teachers as well as increased co-operation between parents and teachers.

The new curriculum for the primary schools, with all its inbuilt motivation for discovery in learning and with its boundless opportunities for creativity and self-expression, ensures the voluntary co-operation of the pupils. Children with educational difficulties and problems are no longer seen— thank God this is so—as recalcitrant children or unco-operative children but rather as individuals who need extra care and attention and who may need the extra services provided by remedial teachers and school psychologists to make life more satisfying for them. The vast majority of teachers neither desire nor use corporal punishment. In the main they would regard resorting to corporal punishment as a failure of the exercise of their professional skills. Teachers nowadays are better trained in understanding the psychology of the young people in their care and have available to them a range of methodologies and content which can cater for the vast majority of teaching situations. In the use of their professional skills they seek to influence their pupils by forming better relationships with them based on mutual affection and respect thus rendering corporal punishment unnecessary.

It is not a simplistic issue that we can deal with in ten minutes on a Thursday evening after a week's parliamentary work. I would like to have discussions with the various teaching and managerial bodies on this topic and I intend to have such discussions. A consensus may, hopefully, be achieved.

We are grateful for the Minister's initiative in this matter.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.25 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 29th November, 1977.