British Christian school headmaster crusades for return to use of paddle

Corporal punishment reinforces moral values, principal insists

September 21, 1999|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LIVERPOOL, England -- Philip Williamson is on a mission to put the sting back into British classroom discipline.

With the Bible as his guide and a now idle paddle as his instrument, the soft-spoken principal of the Christian Fellowship School is a proponent of the judicious use of corporal punishment.

He's even prepared to go to a human rights court for the right to strike students who cross a disciplinary line.

"We're talking about a smack on the hand or the leg," Williamson says. "Nothing to damage or injure the child, but to give them a clear message that what they have done is very wrong."

In a society where schoolmasters once ruled with the whip of a cane, Williamson finds himself running against an educational and social tide. This month, a British ban against corporal punishment took affect in private schools, 13 years after the disciplinary method was outlawed in publicly funded state schools.

Most private institutions, such as Eton and Harrow, where caning was as much of the tradition as cricket, voluntarily abandoned the cane years ago.

Yet Williamson and up to 40 small independent fundamentalist Christian schools in Britain are planning to take their cause to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. They're due this week to file a legal petition seeking to suspend the British legislation and restore their right to administer corporal discipline.

"All we're saying is we want to maintain the right, if it's required," Williamson says. "For us, in this setting, it is a deterrent."

Their chance of victory is a long shot, according to some legal experts, but the case will be eagerly watched because it shows how times have changed in Britain.

From the fiction of "Tom Brown's School Days" to the real-life experiences of generations of Britons, physical punishment was a standard form of maintaining discipline in the classroom.

As far back as 1669, a "lively boy" went to Parliament and presented a petition of protest against school beating. Two centuries later, the practice was still going strong, aided by an 1860 law that permitted parents to "inflict moderate and reasonable corporal punishment" in order "to correct what is evil in a child."

By the 1980s, though, corporal punishment was on its way out in Britain, a victim of changing values and a groundbreaking European court decision that upheld the right of children not to be strapped in a state school against their parents' wishes.

Still, many middle-aged Britons look back ruefully on the slaps and smacks and whacks of their school days, and taking "six of the best" dished out by a vengeful headmaster wielding his cane.

As pundit Auberon Waugh wrote: "When I was 15 and going through a mildly rebellious phase, I held the school record at Downside -- perhaps I still do -- for 14 canings in one term. I am not claiming they did me no harm -- others must judge -- merely that I found them quite disagreeable and they certainly never developed any taste for flagellantism."

There seems to be little political stomach to reinstate corporal punishment.

"The last thing we want to do is use a form of violence that sends the message it's OK for big people to hit little people," says Rachel Hodgkin of EPOCH, End Physical Punishment of Children.

"It's a very ineffective form of discipline, which is instantly obvious if you look at the punishment books schools kept. It was the same child being beaten over and over again."

Williamson, the mild-mannered head teacher, or principal, of the 20-year-old Christian Fellowship School, has emerged as the most forceful proponent of corporal punishment -- corporal discipline, as he calls it.

Walking the halls of his school, it's hard to even imagine that he would need to discipline any of the 200 students, ages 3 1/2 to 16. The kids wear uniforms, are attentive in class and seemingly very respectful of their elders and teachers.

In his office, Williamson, 56, sits ramrod straight. A Bible is on his desk. The wooden paddle, which he once used to enforce rules, rests idle in a top drawer.

"If I had to administer it three times a month, that was a bad month," Williamson says.

Williamson doesn't relish being a spokesman for corporal discipline and is uncomfortable with media portrayals that he is fighting for his right to beat. On the contrary, he says, he is trying to instruct his students.

He says corporal discipline is part of the Judeo-Christian heritage and can work as a means of reinforcing moral values in children. He also claims that abandoning corporal punishment in the state schools is one component in a breakdown of values in Britain.

Williamson says most children don't need corporal discipline, but in some cases, it provides "an important part of moral instruction."

"They need to know where the moral boundaries are," he says.

At his school, Williamson says, corporal discipline was used sparingly, carefully and under strict guidelines with parental consent.

Among the reasons for a whacking: stealing, lying or bullying, infringing on the rights of others, willful defiance, or damage to property, Williamson says.

Children up to 10 could be given a smack or two on the hand, leg or buttocks. Older girls could be strapped on the hand, while older boys could be paddled on the buttocks.

"The object would be to instill that they slipped beyond the bounds," Williamson says. "We found in our school that it works.

"It works because of relationships. We love the kids. It is a tried and tested method of instilling moral character into children."

For now, corporal discipline is legally forbidden. Parental conferences and the specter of suspension or expulsion are the tools used to maintain order.

Yet Williamson maintains students need firm discipline.

"We believe the child, left to his own devices, has a tendency to go wrong," he says.

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