Corporal punishment in UK schools


Corporal punishment used to be very common in the United Kingdom, and also in the British schools created throughout the British Empire. Before the 1800s, birching was very common, but during the Victorian era it was largely replaced with caning using a rattan cane. In Scotland, the prefered method was instead the tawse, both before, during and after the Victorian period.

Corporal punishment of pupils was banned by the British Parliament in 1986 for state schools and for private schools that were at least some of the funding comes from the government. As early as 1982, the European Court of Human Rights had ruled that parents had a right to disallow schools to subject their children to corporal punishment.

For private schools in England and Wales that did not receive any funding from the government, corporal punishment of the pupils was legal until 1998. Scotland enacted a similar law in 2000, followed by Northern Ireland in 2003.

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Interesting court cases

Corporal punishment or assult? “If you get a beating you must expect it to be with force.”

In 1987, the headmaster of an English grammar school caned a 13-year-old boy as punishment for poor exam results. The headmaster was accused of assault, as the five strokes with the cane had caused severe bruising and the boy´s doctor reported five separate weals present on the boy. In court, the headmaster was acquitted and the judge commented that “If you get a beating you must expect it to be with force”.

Is slippering degrading?

Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibits torture, and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

In 1993, the five judges of the European Court of Human Rights had to decide if the slippering of a pupil constituted an infringement of the pupil´s right to be protected from degrading punishment. The slippering had taken place at an independent boarding school, without parental consent and several days after the infraction.

Four of the judges ruled that the slippering was not severe enough to infringe upon the student´s rights. The dissenting judge ruled that it was, due to the ritualised nature of the punishment.

Religious freedom?

The corporal punishment ban contained within the Education Act of 1996 was jointly challenged by several headmasters of private Christian schools who claimed that the ban was a breach of their right to religious freedom. The court case, which they lost, is named R (Williamson) v Secretary of State for Education and Employment (2005).