Corporal punishment alternatives

Stabroek News
July 15, 2001

In our edition of Friday, July 13, we reported on a meeting of a panel of educators and parents which had gathered to consider alternatives to corporal punishment in schools. They did in fact suggest some 30 alternatives, but much of the debate was less concerned with those than with the primary question of whether corporal punishment should be retained in schools or not.

Where this issue is concerned, suffice it to say here that no matter what the merits of the views for or against, it is a sanction which is on its way out in the world, and sooner or later pressure will be exerted on Guyana to abolish it too. Already we are in conflict with the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which we are a signatory, and we will eventually find that we cannot swim against the tide of planetary opinion. As such, therefore, it is wholly fitting that we study the alternatives now.

Discipline in schools is affected by all kinds of factors such as the age and the stage of development of the children concerned. What may be appropriate methods of control for the lower end of the primary school, for example, is usually wholly inappropriate for the upper end of the secondary. Then there is the matter of the size of the classes; a class of thirty or forty children has to be approached in an entirely different way from one where there are ten pupils.

In the secondary system, a school like Queen's College which creams off the more able youngsters, and which still retains something of its academic tradition and its competitive atmosphere, should theoretically have fewer disciplinary problems than a primary top located in a deprived area. It might be noted too, that generally in urban situations (although not necessarily rural ones), it is easier to establish conformity to rules in single-sex secondary schools than in mixed ones because the maturation rates of girls and boys are different, and do not parallel their respective chronological ages. And of course, the background of the majority of children in a given school, the norms of the society in general, and those of the pupils' catchment area affect discipline fundamentally. Not to be forgotten too, is how well-run a school is, and how conscientious and competent its staff.

It must be said that most discussions about discipline have age groups covering the older primary and the secondary students in mind. The younger the age group, the fewer the problems of control should be. The second thing to be observed is that the real challenge to teachers comes in being able to successfully bring into line genuinely disruptive teenagers, who do not want to learn, see no point in learning, and are quite prepared to prevent other students in the class (and maybe the school) from learning too. It is not uncommon, for example, for teachers to be faced with a whole roomfull of disruptive pupils.

For those who have never stood in front of a class of 30 or 40 unruly youngsters, it is perhaps difficult to imagine exactly what the problems - and the dangers - are. Apart from being a situation which makes teaching and learning impossible, a class out of control provides the context in which a teacher can be assaulted. To give but one example from an education system outside this country, there were 3,000 assaults on teachers in Scottish classrooms last year - and that in a country which was once famous both for the order and learning standards in its schools.

When considering the problem of finding disciplinary substitutes for corporal punishment, therefore, one has to be realistic. Showing love to children, as was suggested by Guyana's panel, is suitable for six year-olds, but hardly for a class of undisciplined sixteen year-olds. Which doesn't mean to say they shouldn't be shown interest and concern. However, teachers have to be given immediate tools whereby they can discipline hostile students, and the one most readily available is detention of one sort or another. The panel rightly listed that possibility, although not under that description.

As things stand, teachers in schools where classrooms exist - as opposed to those which have to endure the horrendous open-plan design - sometimes will temporarily solve the problem of a single disruptive student by putting him or her outside the classroom for the duration. That option will no doubt remain available, although if it is used with any frequency it ceases to have an effect. There is, of course, the possibility of suspending a serious or repeat offender, which the panel recognized, and although it was not raised by the members, presumably expulsion would still remain as a last resort.

The danger is that exasperated heads overwhelmed by discipline problems, would resort to 'exclusion,' as it is euphemistically called in Scotland, as a regular substitute sanction in place of corporal punishment. Last year there were almost 39,000 exclusions of disruptive students from Scottish schools, a figure that is alarming authorities and teachers alike. They are now looking at creating the unfortunately nick-named 'sin bins,' i.e. special arrangements for the tutoring and counselling of disruptive pupils - or just a place they could go for a cooling-off period. Some suitable variation on this could perhaps be explored in the Guyana context.

The panel also made some useful suggestions about what might be called an enabling environment for discipline, in the form of involving parents at one level or another, for example, and educating them about what was required and why. It was also agreed that rewarding acceptable behaviour was essential, and that the prefect/monitor system should be utilized in all post-nursery schools. This has worked in many of our older schools, like QC at one time.

Since there is no doubt that corporal punishment will have to go, the sooner all interested parties in the society become involved in the debate on what will replace it the better. The suggestions put forward by the panel are a good starting point, so that our schools can begin exploring the creation of an alternative disciplinary framework which is nevertheless conducive to learning.