Skip to main content
Normal View

Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 30 Jun 1955

Vol. 45 No. 1

Adjournment Debate—Punishment in Primary Schools.

I have had notice from Senator Sheehy Skeffington of intention to raise on the Adjournment a question relating to punishment in Irish primary schools to-day.

In raising this matter on the Adjournment, I should like to say at the outset that it is not my intention in any sense to make an indictment of the teachers or indeed of the Department or the Minister. My concern is to raise the matter to ventilate certain opinions that have reached me and to find out just what information is at the disposal of the Minister's Department. In relation to the teachers, I know that the teachers themselves are uneasy about the whole question of corporal punishment, that the National Conference of the I.N.T.O. had several resolutions down calling for the abolition of corporal punishment in primary schools—and indeed I think that in that direction lies perhaps the best solution.

My sympathy goes to the teacher. I myself am a teacher; I am the son of teachers, and I do not want anything I say subsequently to be taken as a sort of general attack upon the teaching profession.

I should like to state my concern at what appears to be a prevalent and widespread use of the rod, the cane and the strap for all sorts of school misdemeanours, large and small, in our national schools. I find it gravely disturbing and I would suggest that even a small number of teachers indulging overmuch in this form of punishment can instil a large quantity of fear, because the fear extends beyond the children actually beaten.

I think that corporal punishment should not be indulged in even for the gravest of transgressions. It is my personal view that beating children never does any good. I believe that it frequently does harm. I heard it quoted publicly by a distinguished doctor as his opinion that 75 per cent. of the boys who were beaten suffered no ill effect from it, but that 25 per cent. might suffer from serious ill effects, and that it was quite impossible, just by looking at the child, to decide whether he belonged to the 75 or the 25. The same doctor absolutely condemned the beating of girls in any circumstances. If, however, it is contended by some that beating is effective for grave transgressions, then I would say it ought to be reserved for grave transgressions alone. I should expect grave transgressions of that kind to occur very rarely in the schools, and I believe that corporal punishment should never be used for mere failure on the part of a child to know its lessons.

That is my opinion and I know the Minister agrees with me. I know that his Department agrees with me, because his Department lays down its regulations and I would quote a few of them. One says:—

"Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression."

Another says:—

"In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons."

Again, another rule says:—

"No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment."

I would mention just one more:—

"Teachers should keep a copy of these rules and regulations suspended in their schoolrooms in a conspicuous place."

That demonstrates to me that the Minister and the Department are in agreement with me in my main contention that corporal punishment should only be used, if at all, for the gravest of transgressions.

Such are the regulations, such is the theory—but what is the practice in our primary schools to-day? If one were to tell any schoolboy or schoolgirl that he or she must never be beaten for mere failure at lessons, every schoolboy or girl can tell you that you are either misinformed or being deliberately hypocritical If, I suggest to the Minister, it were to be announced tomorrow morning, in every class in every national school in the country, that any teacher who beats a child for mere failure at lessons is failing or refusing to observe the Minister's regulations, you would produce a sensation in class.

I was approached some time ago to engage in a debate for Radio Eireann on the whole question of corporal punishment. I agreed. My frame of mind was that I was opposed to corporal punishment in general, but that I did not think it in fact took place very much. My experience was all of secondary schooling, and, although it did exist in one or two of the schools I was at, it never occurred more than once or twice throughout the school, in any given year.

I had heard of an organisation known as the School Children's Protection Organisation from letters in the Evening Mail and I made an approach to them, because I had been struck by certain of the letters they had written in the controversy. I went to them. I saw the secretary, Mrs. O'Connell, and she showed me, and I saw for the first time, a number of parents' letters dealing with everyday occurrences in the school experiences of the children of those parents. I may say that I was shocked both by the content of the letters, and by the fact that these letters, written, one could see, with the greatest of effort, by foster-mother, grandmother, mother or father or even sometimes pupil, had the ring of authenticity and truth.

I should like to say at this juncture that I think tribute is due to the organisation and to its secretary, Mrs. O'Connell, for their courage, their persistence and public-spirited calling of attention to the whole question of what, in fact, is going on in relation to punishment in these schools.

This organisation got a number of requests from parents throughout the country for copies of the Minister's regulations. They were sent out, and they evoked from parents, who had hitherto been in ignorance of the regulations, letters of comment, 70 of which have been published in a booklet which has lately been referred to in the Press —Punishment in Our Schools—and which to me adduced disquieting evidence about what is happening in our schools.

I should like to be able to quote at length, but time does not permit. I should, nevertheless, like to quote just a few. I should like to quote Letter No. 16 in which a father, talking about his boy, says that he found his body marked from a beating which the teacher gave him:—

"On the 17th I took him to the school attendance officer who also saw the marks on the child's body. I wrote to the Minister for Education and to the inspector but both my letters were ignored."

Or Letter No. 13, which adds as a P.S.:—

"I reported all this (the beating of a little girl of eight) to the Department of Education last November but have not heard from them."

Or Letter No. 10, which a father writes, says:—

"My daughter, aged 13, attends a mixed national school and one day, being unable to do a certain sum, she copied it from another pupil. When the teacher discovered this he gave her a spanking. Another time, for a similar reason, he put her across a desk and gave her six strokes of the cane. On neither occasion was the punishment very severe, but I should like to know if a teacher is allowed to punish a pupil in this manner at all."

That is a girl of 13 beaten by a male teacher before a mixed class. Letter No. 8 says:—

"I think it's all wrong"

—says a father—

"to beat a child with a stick, to pull them by the hair, to pinch their cheeks... That's no way to treat any child... I have a little boy and he goes to bed at night crying with fear of going to school. In my opinion, if a child thinks he or she is going to be beat he will get so nervous he is afraid to speak up."

My final quotation is from Letter No. 5. An ex-pupil writes and says:—

"During my few years at (such and such a school) children were regularly caned for missing lessons ... During my four years at ... we were always regularly beaten for lessons, in all classes, by both lay teachers and nuns, especially for missing Catechism."

There are 70 of these letters. At the back of the pamphlet there are two words with a big question mark—"Isolated Cases?" Are these isolated cases—70 letters from 21 countries throughout the country? How representative can one take these letters to be? I would say that the parent who sits down and writes a letter of this kind is the exception, but I am certainly convinced that they have the ring of truth, and I think that other Senators who have seen the booklet, if they have read it with attention, will feel alarmed by the cumulative effect of these letters, and I should like to ask the Minister what is his reaction to these?

I understand from the organisation that 33 of these 70 cases were, in fact, reported to his Department, and I should like to ask what action he found it necessary to take, what kind of investigation, and with what result?

I, personally, from this booklet and also from a great number of conversations with ex-pupils of national schools, am certain that beating of children is rife in primary schools to-day, the beating both of boys and girls, children of six and seven years old as well as children of 12 and 13 and I would ask you very briefly to consider what is the effect on a child of six being beaten by an adult two or three times his size. I suggest that the effect is lamentable.

These children, all too often, are beaten for mere failure at lessons, particularly, on my information, for failure in two subjects, Catechism and Irish. It may be said: "Good. That is the only way in which important subjects can be taught." I wonder is it?

I should like to quote from the Rev. Fr. Nash, who, in last Sunday's Sunday Press, mentions a story of little Jimmie, who “tells you: ‘I got so many hammerings at school when preparing for Confirmation that I grew to hate religion. I was counting the days till I got away and could pack it up. I am glad to be through and have no further use for it.’ And he mentioned the name of the school—one known well, in charge of a devoted teaching order.”

Fr. Nash has the courage to state that and to condemn it, condemn it strongly, and, I would suggest, rightly.

The School Children's Protection Organisation quotes His Holiness the Pope as saying, with not dissimilar meaning and implication:—

"No child is so unruly that he cannot be trained with care, patience and love; and it will rarely happen that even the stoniest and most unpromising soil will not bear some flower of submission and virtue, if only an unreasonable severity does not run the risk of exterminating the seed of goodwill which even the proudest soul has hidden within it."

Despite these statements, and such a statement as that which I have just read, which is surely sound common sense educationally, nevertheless, when any protest or criticism is made of beating in schools, one sees an unhappy "closing of the ranks," and, unfortunately, the good teacher who, I am convinced, is in the big majority, feels bound to defend the transgressors from a sort of false sense of loyalty.

I should like to ask does the Minister know what is going on, and, if so, how does he know? On what is his knowledge based? What are his sources of information and what inquiries has he held? Has he held any sworn inquiries into any single one of these reported events? Over half of these cases, or almost half, have been reported to him. What was the result? What has been the follow-up? What has been the investigation, and what kind of comment can he make upon them? I would suggest a simple test—to quote the regulations, as I have quoted them, to any school child and ask if in his or her school they are observed, and the answer will be emphatically "no" in almost every case.

What, then, is the Minister's attitude? Is he indifferent? It he prepared to turn the blind eye, or what is his hope and intention in this regard? I should like to ask also what is the teacher to do? We know they are teaching sometimes close on 60 to 70 children in overcrowded conditions. We know that many are under-trained teachers. We know that most of them are underpaid. We know that there are no recreational facilities for the children, and so on. That is all very true and it has been pointed out by others besides myself. In a recent editorial in the Irish Independent, which I have not time to quote, the same point is made. But is this the fault of the children of six and upwards in the schools? Why should these children pay for neglect of duty by the Department, by the Minister, by society, by all of us, and pay dearly for it, in terms of pain and fear and tears?

Now the question may be asked: is the situation really as bad as I am painting it? If it is as bad as it is sometimes said to be, why do not the parents take cases to the courts? I would suggest that there are various reasons why they do not do so. There is, first of all, the natural hesitation to go to court. There is the natural hesitation to attack teachers whom they know to be overburdened and overworked. Then, too, the complaining parent is usually regarded as a nuisance and is not very well received, even if he is only verifying, or trying to verify, a child's story. Parents have a natural desire to keep on good terms with the school authorities and the school manager.

I would suggest there is a bad system of public relations between parents and school authorities in primary schools. There are no parent-teacher associations, as there are in many of the secondary schools. Lastly, there is frequently the cost and the inefficacy of court cases. I would like just to mention one case reported in the Clare Champion on 17th July, 1954. In that report it was stated that a teacher set a pack of older boys to chase a boy who had run away to avoid a beating and bring him back to school. The district justice referred to this setting of a pack of boys on the boy as the use of “Gestapo methods”. The teacher, in defence, said the boy was a rough boy, and that he himself was only protecting a young woman teacher who had to deal with these boys; “he felt he had dealt with him normally, knowing the kind of people he was dealing with.” The district justice, in summing up the case, said that certain boys are tough. That is quite true. What was the age of this boy? He was a little boy of 8½. What was his nature? Evidence was given by the woman teacher who was supposed to be being protected: she said of the little boy in court that “he was a bit giddy at times, was full of activity, playful and bright and was not a particularly bad boy.” Yet, that little boy actually got brutal treatment, brutal to the point that the district justice said: “The action of the teacher in sending a posse of boys after the little fellow had a touch of Gestapo methods about it. There was something wrong about sending ten bigger boys after a boy: they knocked him down and caused injury to his back.”

What was the result of bringing that case to court? The result was that the district justice said that "beyond that he would not go and he would dismiss the case without costs." Without costs! I suggest that that kind of case is one factor at least in the fact that very few parents feel inclined to bring these cases to court. Consequently, many such cases—many potential cases— never come to court; and I fear that for very similar reasons it is only the rare parent who puts pen to paper to write to the Department of Education.

Now I want to be satisfied that the Minister is as aware of these conditions and of the methods of punishment obtaining in primary schools to-day as the ordinary national school child of six or seven years of age or 12 or 13 is. I want to ask the Minister does he know how much beating is going on, and for what reasons? I want to ask him does he realise that his regulations are being openly flouted in many primary schools throughout the country every day. I want to ask him does he realise that the lighthearted breaking of departmental regulations with impunity by respected school authorities brings his Department into serious disrespect, and that it teaches defiance and contempt and mockery of the law in general. I want to ask him whether, if he regards his regulations as inoperative in practice, he intends publicly to renounce them and recommend that they be changed? Or is he prepared to insist that they be observed—that his own regulations be observed—revolutionary though that course of action may appear

I should like to say, in conclusion, that in my opinion the inculcation of fear through physical pain is the very negation of education; and, furthermore, that, by example, it teaches the strong to beat the weak, and the weak to show cowardly deference and fear before the wielders of force. It is because I am not sure whether the Minister and the Department know what the wide general public knows about the application and methods of punishment in primary schools to-day, or whether he is simply reluctant to find out, that I have considered it worth while raising this matter here to-night on the Adjournment.

I just want to ask one question. What time is available for this discussion?

There are only ten minutes more.

Then there is no opportunity for anybody to reply except the Minister.

I understand that under this procedure it is only the Minister who is asked to reply.

It is a pity Dr. Sheehy Skeffington did not take the course of putting down a motion in order to give Senators an opportunity of replying to the campaign of vilification which is going on throughout the country.

Having been asked so many questions, if the procedure allows it, I would like to ask just one question: how is it that, if all this terrible state of affairs exists throughout this Christian country, not a single Senator out of all the Senators who are privileged to be members of this House has ever written to the Minister for Education a single word about it or put a single statement of any particular fact before him? There is, perhaps, a little parenthesis in that: How is it that Senator Sheehy Skeffington is so concerned about all this and, having a particular case about which he knows—No. 16 in the book—in relation to which the Minister has been written to twice and has not replied, he has not taken some of the liberal supply of official stationery and written to the Minister asking him has he any sense of his responsibilities in relation to that particular case, giving some information about it? Now that is my question, if I may be permitted to put it. I turn now to some cold facts.

On a point of order——

May I be allowed my ten minutes——

I take it these are rhetorical questions and that I am not supposed to answer them?

The Senator will resume his seat. He has had ample time.

——may I be allowed my ten minutes to reply to the very considerable amount of stuff that the Senator has presented to the Seanad. We are discussing a situation governed by a particular scheme. There are about 13,000 teachers in the country, 10,000 of these are lay teachers and about 3,000 belong to religious bodies. There are 1,500 managers who are responsible for the administration and general supervision of the schools and the work done in them. There are eight divisional inspectors who supervise the work of 46 district inspectors. There is a Department of Education and there is a Minister. That is the educational setting in the parochial society of Ireland. That is the situation.

I want to assure the Seanad, after the closest possible association with the Department and a close understanding of the close contact of the inspectorial staff of the Department with the work of the schools and with a considerable amount of schools visitation myself, that there is not any justification nor is there the slightest foundation for the suggestion that, outside the very clearly defined spirit and letter of the regulations with regard to corporal punishment in the schools, there is either excessive or any, in any but the most isolated cases, kind of corporal punishment outside the rules and regulations.

No beating for failure at lessons?

The Senator will please permit the Minister to finish; he has only ten minutes.

The Senator, if he knows anything, if he has one particular case, knows that the parent will be asked to make a statement in the matter and it will be fully investigated. I think it a most irresponsible suggestion on the part of the Senator, who has never put any information before the Minister, to come in here and suggest that regulations or complaints are being ignored. Those are the circumstances. That is the position. Senators can have my assurance of that. I am concerned at the moment with letting the Seanad know what exactly is the scheme of things under which this work is done.

I would direct the attention of the Seanad to the fact that in December 1946 the following memorandum was issued to all managers and all teachers in regard to the infliction of corporal punishment in national schools:—

"The Minister for Education desires to bring specially to the notice of managers and teachers the provisions of Rule 96 of the code —quoted below—including additions, printed in italics, recently made to sections (1) and (3).

It has been found necessary to make these additions to the rule in view of cases which have occurred, in which pupils have been punished for failure to answer questions correctly, or in which punishment has been inflicted on parts of the body other than the open hand.

Teachers must remember that no member of the staff of a school, other than the principal teacher, should inflict corporal punishment, unless duly authorised by the manager to do so, and all principal teachers and teachers so authorised should constantly bear in mind, and strictly comply with, all the provisions of this rule.

Teachers are expected to try to understand the pupil's character and temperament, and to ascertain his general circumstances with a view to deciding what is the best curative action to take in a particular case of default or misconduct. They should always remember that punishment; especially corporal punishment, may have the opposite effect to that which it was intended to produce. Remarks, calculated to lessen the pupil's hope of progress and improvement, should not be made.

The Minister takes a grave view of cases in which excessive punishment, or punishment in violation of any of the provisions of this rule, is administered, and hopes that teachers by a strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the rule will obviate the necessity for official action of a disciplinary or penal character.

The principal teacher of a school, with a staff of two or more teachers, shall give this circular to the other member or members of the staff to read in order that they make themselves acquainted with its terms, and fully appreciate the requirements of the rule. The circular should then be preserved for official use with the school records.

Micheál Breathnach,


Rule 96 reads:—

"(1) Corporal punishment should be administered only for grave transgression. In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons.

(2) Only the principal teacher, or such other member of the staff as may be duly authorised by the manager for the purpose, should inflict corporal punishment.

(3) Only a light cane or rod may be used for the purpose of corporal punishment which should be inflicted only on the open hand. The boxing of children's ears, the pulling of their hair or similar illtreatment is absolutely forbidden and will be visited with severe penalties.

(4) No teacher should carry about a cane or other instrument of punishment.

(5) Frequent recourse to corporal punishment will be considered by the Minister as indicating bad tone and ineffective discipline."

Now the insertions for which that circular was particularly issued are:—

"In no circumstances should corporal punishment be administered for mere failure at lessons."


"Corporal punishment should be inflicted on the open hand."

That has to be read in relation to Regulation 95 (3) in "Practical Rules for Teachers.":—

"To evince a regard for the improvement and general welfare of their pupils; to treat them with kindness, combined with firmness; and to aim at governing them by their affections and reason rather than by harshness and severity."

Regulation 14 (8) reads:—

"The manager possesses all the powers of the patron except that of appointing a manager. He is charged with the direct government of the school, the appointment of the teachers, subject to the Minister's approval, their removal and the conducting of the necessary correspondence."

These are the regulations. As regards complaints, if a parent has a complaint against a teacher for the illtreating of pupils in any way, the natural approach would first be for the parent to go to the teacher and remonstrate or complain either personally or in writing. If he does not get any satisfaction in that particular way, the natural approach then is to go to the manager and complain about the teacher to the manager. If he does not get any satisfaction in that way, the natural approach is to write to the Department of Education, to write to the Minister. When a complaint reaches the Minister, the Minister will reply to the parent and ask the parent to report to the manager if the parent has not done that already. The Minister will write to the manager and will ask the manager to inquire into the matter. He will direct an inspector— if the matter is serious enough—to make inquiries, and if it is particularly serious he will hold a formal inquiry into the matter.

I want to say that the complaints that have reached me with regard to any matters of this particular kind do not amount to one a month, and as far as inquiries of a formal nature are concerned in this matter, there have not been more than two inquiries in the last 12 months. Where all this upheaval arises from I do not know. No Senator has told me.

I want to challenge Senators and to challenge the Press. The Press is a very responsible organ in this country and I am quite sure it is in a sense of responsibility they print these things. I would like to see parents writing to me saying that, having written to the Press, they have been advised by the Press to make their complaints to the Minister or the manager. We do not live many miles away from one another in Ireland. We live a parish life.

I should like to ask this question of the Seanad: Has any Senator in recent months gone into an Irish school and looked at Irish children there and asked them a few questions? Within the last week, I have been in 15 schools in Kerry where the children are leaping out of their skins with good humour and intelligence and with bright eyes, firing questions as well as answers at people who come in.

Do not degrade our situation here. There are systematic, clear rules. There is a systematic way in which parents can make a complaint. The managers under the rules are in no way legally restricted from making known to the teachers, in the fullest possible way, any complaint against them. We are dealing with parents and expect the parents to deal with the managers and the managers to deal with the teachers. I also accept responsibility for seeing that the fullest possible inquiry is made into things where the parents give the assistance we expect of parents in looking after their children.

I want the Senators to understand that, when I talk of the number of teachers and managers, we must also realise that the teachers have their organisation which, while caring for the reputation and well-being of individual members and is organised for that, is also mindful of their interests and their prestige and is not going to allow any individual teacher to under mine the confidence of the people in that organisation. I want to say with regard to those who are religious members, they have their own religious superiors to assist if there is any complaint with regard to the regulations. But do not ask us to take as sincere material that is thrown up here. I really charge the Senator—although I am prepared to withdraw that if I get evidence to the contrary—with a lack of sincerity in raising this question here in this way without giving any information on the one particular case he says he knows about.

I would plead with the permission of the House to put one quotation from the document that has been quoted by Senator Sheehy Skeffington here on record, the document that he spoke about in the earlier part of his statement. It has this sentence:—

"Under existing conditions the first thing a little child learns at school is fear. As it grows older this develops into bitterness and resentment which in turn wind up in defiance. Truly a very natural process for a perfect delinquent. In this procedure they learn that if they can be clever liars they can avoid punishment. They also learn to hit children smaller and weaker than themselves and they learn that rules and regulations—departmental or other—are made to be broken. Having perfected these accomplishments, they receive punishment anyhow, though not for the transgressions. We are convinced from our observations that the unfortunate child who finds that the first kind word it has experienced from anyone in authority is when it appeared in the children's court, can lay the most blame for its unhappy circumstances at the altar of our present primary education system"

All I say here is that the doors of our schools here are open to any Senator who wants to go in. The children are there to be seen and the atmosphere there to be felt. I think it is a disgusting thing that the Senator should ask an Irish Minister for Education to come into the Seanad under these conditions and to answer the statement that Senator Sheehy Skeffington has made to-night. I hope the Senator realises that he has an opportunity of making amends for it later on. I am not going to be driven by any kind of public agitation like that, to go mucking back into that kind of stuff either. I challenge the Senator, and anybody for whom he has any respect and who has complaints of that particular kind, to bring me any case that has taken place since the schools reopened in Easter, any case that has been reported in any way to a manager since the schools opened after the Christmas holidays, something that has happened in the last six months. The Senator put down a test. I put down a test and that is the test that you will stand over something you say is happening to-day and encourage the parents to go to their manager or teacher.

Thirty-three of these have been sent to the Minister already.

I challenge the Senator to give me the names of these 33 cases.

Dr. Sheehy Skeffington rose.

The Minister has now reached the end of his time.

On a point of order——

The Senator may not now raise a point of order.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.15 p.m. until 3 p.m. on Wednesday, 6th July, 1955.