Sheila Thompson (name changed) was headteacher at a large suburban primary school in the north of England from 1978 to 1985 – a year before corporal punishment was abolished in UK schools. She kindly agreed to be interviewed about her memories of that time.
How many children did you have responsibility for, and what ages?
It varied a little year to year, but on average we had about 300 pupils at any one time, ranging from four-year-olds in reception to the oldest being 11, when they went on to secondary.
How important is discipline in the life of a school?
It’s incredibly important. You need to create an environment where children can have the best chance to learn, and bad or disruptive behaviour by just one or two in a classroom can massively impact that.
Is punishment the same thing as discipline?
That’s a good question. It’s part of good discipline, in my opinion. You can’t maintain the rules without there being some penalty for ignoring them.
Including corporal punishment?
Well, of course, in my day, CP was far more widely accepted than it is today. If I felt that it was the best thing for the child, I didn’t hesitate to use it. We felt that it worked, at least in most cases, and it had the big advantage of being quickly over for all concerned.
How common was its use?
It wasn’t an everyday occurrence – most of the children sent to me, I could reduce to tears with a severe ticking off if needed – but neither was it uncommon. You have to remember that smacking was very much a part of family life back then.
I believe you used the cane?
Yes, I did cane sometimes. However, that was really my ‘nuclear option’. Most of the time, especially with the younger ones, I would give the child a traditional smacked bottom like most of them probably got from mum or dad at home.
Over your knee?
Yes, as I say, like most of them got at home.
Did you remove clothing?
Yes, I smacked them on the bare bottom. It’s meant to hurt and taking their pants down for it ensured it did!
How hard did you smack?
Pretty hard. If you’re going to spank a child, there’s nothing to be gained from going easy on them. A smacking from me would leave them with a red bum and they would be crying, of course. My own boys would tell you that their mum has a hard hand!
So you smacked at home too, then?
Oh yes – you must remember, it was the accepted way of raising children back then.
Tell me about the cane.
Well, as I say, it was my ‘nuclear option’ – although officially, it was the only thing I was supposed to use for CP. But I felt it was too harsh for most things, especially for little children.
So your over-the-knee smackings were, in a sense, ‘unofficial’?
Strictly speaking, yes. But although we were under LEA (Local Education Authority – Ed) control, we didn’t have anything like the amount of external oversight schools have today. There was no national curriculum, and we were very much our own domain.
I did record smackings as well as canings in the Punishment Book, but in all those years of being inspected by HMI (Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools – the predecessor to today’s regulator Ofsted – Ed) only once did an inspector ask to look at the book.
I remember it was a lady inspector – she had children of her own and when I explained that I normally just used my hand as it was less severe than the cane, she nodded and agreed with me. In primary schools, things were a lot more ‘homely’, really.
Back to the cane – in what circumstances would you use it?
I gave it mainly to the older children – mostly boys, of course! Very few girls. I can’t remember anyone younger than eight having it. And it had to be pretty serious – hitting another children, danger to life and limb, insolence to their class teacher, that sort of thing.
What was your cane like and where did you get it from?
You had to get them from one of the LEA’s official suppliers – I seem to remember we got everything from EJ Arnold, a big company in the Midlands, including canes. I actually had two – a nursery cane and a junior one but as I rarely whacked the young children, I almost exclusively used the junior one.
What was the procedure?
The cane was given with the child bending over a chair, hands on the seat. I had a classroom chair which I kept in the far corner of my office for the purpose. This was the right height for the child to bend over so their bottom was in the right position.
The canes were kept on show, by the way, as a bit of a deterrent to casual visitors! They lived in a large floor vase in one corner of the room, handles up, and a little bit of water in the bottom to stop them drying out.
Was the cane given on the bare bottom as well?
No, it was given on the seat of their underpants. I tried to make things quite a bit more formal and hopefully scary, especially as these were older children. With girls, it can be awkward to cane over a skirt, so I felt pants was the best and fairest option for both sexes. They allowed a bit of modesty for the older children without really offering much protection.
How many strokes did you generally give?
Well, that varied with the offence, obviously. I never gave less than three strokes, because I felt any less wouldn’t make much of an impression. Most children were usually crying after the second stroke. I must say, although there were some children I smacked pretty regularly, I rarely had a repeat ‘customer’ for the cane.
What happened afterwards?
They’d be told to pull their trousers up or let their skirt down again. I had a box of tissues on my desk, so I would give the child one of those and let them dry their eyes and blow their nose. While they were having a bit of a cry and getting themselves back under control, I would generally use the time to enter the details in the Punishment Book.
Were their parents informed?
The child would be given a Punishment Slip, detailing the offence and the punishment, that they had to take home, get a parent to sign and return the next day to my office. Some children you felt a bit sorry for at that point, because you knew they’d probably be going home to another dose.
Were parents supportive of CP?
Generally, yes. We had one or two of the ‘how dare you touch my little boy’ types but really nothing like you get today. Most were supportive and would tell the child: “That’ll teach you not to be naughty.” A few strict ones, like I say, would probably smack them again when they got them home, for bringing disgrace on the family etc.
As I mentioned, the child had to bring the signed Punishment Slip back to me and I would use that opportunity for another lecture and ask them what mum and dad thought about their behaviour. Quite a few would say they’d been smacked again.
On other occasions, mums would come up to me at home time a few days later and say something like: “I’ve tanned his arse for him so you shouldn’t have any more trouble.”
Were other teachers allowed to administer corporal punishment?
Not in my school, no. I know that others allowed class teachers to smack legs or bottoms, or even use the slipper, but I always felt that I wanted exclusive control over something as potentially controversial.
What was the impact of corporal punishment on the school as a whole?
The most obvious thing to say is that it was a great deterrent. The vast majority of children never came through my office door for even a telling off, let alone having their pants put down for a smack.
You were aware you had a certain reputation, you know? “Oh, Mrs Thompson smacks naughty boys on the bare bum.” “Mrs Thompson has a big stick.” That sort of thing – quite amusing, really!
Was it a mistake to ban corporal punishment in schools?
Yes, I think it was a huge mistake. Children today have much less respect for their teachers – it’s all this ‘oh, you can’t do anything to me’ attitude. And the parents are just as bad, I’m afraid. Obviously, there were some abuses, just as there are abusive parents. But by and large, I think we did the right thing by our children.