Corporal punishmentin schools Editorial
Stabroek News
April 29, 2007

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The cane has been the main instrument of discipline in Guyanese schools going back to the earliest days of formal education. In the best secondary schools, it was no doubt employed somewhat sparingly, and represented the ultimate (as opposed to an ordinary) sanction in instances of serious breaches of the rules. Corporal punishment was possibly not used in the senior secondary girls' schools, and perhaps not the occasional private primary school either, but these cases would be the exceptions.

As a mode of school punishment the cane has been much subject to abuse in this country. Generations of teachers and headmasters/headmistresses operated on the assumption that if their pupils were not beaten, they would not learn. As a consequence, children were hit routinely if they made a spelling mistake, for example, or if they could not do their arithmetic. In many of the primary schools in particular, it was a case of education by fear - hardly an instructional method to be recommended. In addition, of course, in the hands of anyone of a somewhat sadistic disposition, the cane (or ferrula in Catholic schools) could be quite an instrument of terror.

These teaching methods survived because the indiscriminate beating of children went on in the home too, and was therefore accepted as the norm.

The popular notions of the time about the virtues of caning notwithstanding, there were other factors contributing to the better disciplinary environment in the earlier schools than the one teachers enjoy nowadays. It must be remembered, for instance, that teachers enjoyed enormous respect in the community, and parents supported them unquestioningly where the matter of educating their children was concerned.

In addition, acquiring an education in the old days was seen as the avenue to success and status in the society, and so the motivation to learn was probably greater among all classes than is the case today. As a consequence, many poorer parents were prepared to make considerable financial sacrifices in order to ensure that the next generation got a good schooling. Of course, conspicuous consumption on the scale which we see today did not exist, and people's needs were simpler. There were no brand-name sneakers, Ipods, or whatever, to tempt the impecunious, and most of all there was no TV beaming its consumer messages and sometimes alien values into our homes, diverting children from reading or doing homework.

As far as the social structure was concerned, before emigration took its toll there was still the extended family, many of whose adult members were involved at some level in the raising of all the children encompassed within the group. Single mothers who had to go out or who worked could invariably find a family member to supervise their offspring in their absence; the phenomenon which we see nowadays of youngsters left to their own devices for hours at a time was not nearly so prevalent. And in fact, all adults within a community were more disposed to reprimand a minor misbehaving on the street than their descendants would today. In other words, given the larger disciplinary framework of earlier times, even if the cane had been outlawed in schools, classroom discipline would still have been much better overall than what obtains at present.

This country is a signatory to an international convention on the rights of the child requiring the abolition of corporal punishment. We have not complied with its provisions largely because, one presumes, the public is antipathetic to the idea.

Given the deteriorating disciplinary situation in schools, the popular belief is that getting rid of the cane would cause a total collapse of order in the classroom. As things stand, however, corporal punishment is not stemming the tide of indiscipline in the education system.

What happens in the schools is merely a reflection of what is going on in the society at large, where rules in all departments are often simply ignored. As indicated above, maintaining order in the classroom never did depend solely on one single sanction; it was the product of a combination of factors.

Guyana will sooner rather than later have to honour its international conventions, and bring itself into line with world thinking on the matter of the corporal punishment of children in institutional settings. There have been too many cases of abuse by teachers in recent times, and if for no other reason than to prevent this, the authorities should be seeking to abolish the use of the cane in schools.

It is true that many teachers would feel that if this were done, the range of sanctions at their disposal would not be all that great, but far more important to classroom order than physical punishment is a functioning disciplinary framework within the school; clear rules which are regularly spelt out to the children; the consistent application of those rules; and fairness when dealing with cases of breach. Furthermore, the individual school must be given a certain amount of latitude by the Ministry of Education so that no appearance is given to pupils that the ministry and not the headteacher is the ultimate authority in disciplinary matters.

Finally, the ministry should begin to think about what arrangements it should make for consistently unruly pupils who do not respond to suspensions, for example. Like some other countries it might have to consider a special remedial school for those for whom the normal range of school punishments have not proved a deterrent.