Newspapers have recently revealed that the Catholic Church in Scotland is opposed to the Scottish government's proposed ban on smacking. The church doesn't believe it right for the state 'to interfere' in parenting except in the most exceptional circumstances. A variety of Catholic countries – Spain, Portugal and Ireland – have legislated against smacking, so the opposition to a ban is not inherent in Catholic theology. Indeed the Pope's country – Argentina – has also outlawed the practice.
Part of the Scottish Catholic Church's defence of its view is that, in a 2017 survey, three-quarters of those asked said that smacking should not be a criminal offence. Almost the same number agreed with the view that it was up to parents to decide whether or not to smack their children.
This doesn't surprise me. Some polls show that a majority of Scots still back the return of capital punishment. Authoritarianism runs deep in Scotland. We have a long history of hitting children. The belt was only abolished in 1987 as a result of an edict by the European Court of Human Rights – not because of a change in Scottish public opinion.
In the course of my research for my latest book, 'Hiding in Plain Sight: Exploring Scotland’s ill health,' I asked almost everyone I met about their experience of corporal punishment in school. As yet I've hardly encountered one Scot of my generation who wasn't belted at some point in their school days – most of them multiple times. As well as the belt, many recount other incidents of teacher violence, such as having wooden blackboard dusters thrown at them. Being struck over the knuckles with a ruler. Repeatedly jabbed in the back or ribs with a finger or pencil or slapped forcefully on the legs. One friend told me that his technical teacher struck him on the head from behind with a block of wood. He fell to the floor unconscious.
Many remember teachers at secondary school wearing their belts over their shoulders like scarves, or under their gowns, so they could whip them out at the slightest provocation. Lots of people report that some teachers in their school, both primary and secondary, were sadists or psychopaths. Others maintain their teachers were 'kinky', as they appeared to get a perverted pleasure out of beating children or adolescents.
Official guidance in Scotland said that the belt should only be given for disciplinary offences and not for poor academic performance. But people were certainly belted for that. In some teachers' classes, spelling mistakes, errors in sums, not knowing French vocabulary, forgetting poems... all warranted a good belting. One man I know was belted every Monday morning at his Catholic school for not remembering the catechism.
As most of the people I spoke to performed well at school and went on to university, I've been surprised by how many of them recounted numerous incidents. At secondary school these beltings were often for lateness or because the teacher had decided to belt the whole class. In primary school, teachers often belted pupils for talking or misbehaving in line. Or it could be for some bizarre and totally unpredictable reason.
I have also been surprised by how many girls were belted at primary school. One woman, now a GP, told me that when she was seven she put one foot on the road when out on a school trip. The teacher belted her when they returned to school. Another female doctor recounts being belted when she was five for pleating the hair of the girl in front of her in class. My close friend, latterly a professor, says she was belted every week in primary school because she was giggling or talking (i.e. behaving like a child), or the teacher wanted to put her in her place. Another said she was continually belted or hit with a ruler for 'dumb insolence.'
There were much worse incidents than the ones I've heard from friends. Someone posted the following question on a Glasgow discussion board online: 'Did you get the belt at school, how many, what for and did it work?' Last time I looked there were 571 comments. Many of the incidents people relate are awful. For example, one woman recounts that she was so frightened of her primary 1 teacher that she didn't ask to go to the toilet. She wet the floor. The teacher then belted the scared infant.
One man recounts that, in his first day at secondary school, one of the teachers belted him as they shared the same surname. The teacher wanted to prove to the class there would be no favouritism. Another woman tells us that she got the belt seven times one morning in primary 2 for not being able to remember a prayer. Some recounted getting 12 strokes of the belt. Others say they had to put their hands above a desk so their knuckles hit it, thus doubling the pain.
As well as anecdotes, there are some studies which corroborate the extensive use of corporal punishment in Scottish schools. A study of 40,000 school leavers conducted in 1980 found that only one in 20 Scottish boys went through secondary school without being belted. A 1977 study found that more than a third of 12-15-year-old boys received the belt at least once in 10 school days. A fifth received it three or more times during this period. This figure undermines the argument that the belt had a deterrent effect.
In both his books on the history of modern Scotland, Kenneth Roy admirably chronicles the authoritarianism of the nation's recent past. Using official figures he estimates that, in Edinburgh alone, teachers used the belt 30,000 times in one year.
Roy also recounts how the treatment of young people in approved schools was even worse. Modern guidelines for teachers on use of the belt specified that it could only be used on hands. Not so in approved schools mainly for delinquents, where teachers could apply the stout Lochgelly tawse to the buttocks. Scottish education department documents from the 1970s, published under the 30-year rule, show that corporal punishment was used 10 times more often in Scotland's approved schools than their English equivalents.
It is common for people to feel shocked at how children were treated in previous eras, so readers may think that what happened in 20th century Scotland was normal. It wasn't. Poland was the first country to abolish corporal punishment in schools and it did this in 1783. Corporal punishment of any kind ceased in French schools in 1887. Russia abolished it in 1917, and China in 1949. If we look at the progressive European countries we would like to emulate, we'll find that they abolished corporal punishment in schools decades ago: Finland (1914); Netherlands (1920); Italy (1928); Sweden (1928); Norway (1936); Luxembourg (1945); and Denmark (1947).
The English-speaking world was not as eager to outlaw corporal punishment in schools: New Zealand banned it in 1989, Canadian provinces followed suit in the 1990s, and there are some states in Australia and America which still permit it.
There's little doubt that posh independent schools in the UK were the world leaders in physically punishing pupils, particularly with the cane. A disturbing new book by Alex Renton called 'Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes and the Schooling of a Ruling Class,' exposes the severe physical punishment meted out to pupils in UK public schools, particularly boarding schools, right up to the turn of this century. Canings and similar types of punishment weren't just the preserve of school masters and head teachers. In many posh establishments, including prep schools, prefects were also given the power to beat their younger peers. Indeed, Renton argues that the British establishment had to be forced to ban corporal punishment in schools because it had been so much part of their schooling that they thought it 'normal'.
Some state schools in England also used the cane, and corporal punishment was widespread throughout the country until the Westminster parliament banned it in 1986 – one year before Scotland. Some local authority areas banned caning decades before, but permitted use of the slipper or a slap with the hand. Newcastle schools used a Scottish-style belt. What is clear is that, while corporal punishment was widely used in English state schools, it wasn't nearly as prevalent as it was in Scotland. Some local authorities didn't allow girls to be disciplined in this way. Primary school children were much less likely to be hit, and some secondary schools didn't use corporal punishment at all.
Colin Farrell, in an article for the Corpun website, maintains that the Scottish prevalence levels for corporal punishment, cited earlier, suggest 'a considerably higher level of usage of CP overall in Scotland than in England and Wales.' This chimes with the experiences of many people I've spoken to. Sue Palmer, author of 'Toxic Childhood' and founder of Upstart, was educated in England, then trained as a teacher at Moray House in Edinburgh. Sue has subsequently worked extensively in education both north and south of the border. She maintains that, at least from the 1960s, corporal punishment was less frequently employed (and less harsh) in English than in Scottish state schools.
There were always a few Scottish teachers who didn't resort to this type of discipline, and there were some inspiring figures like the educationalist and head teacher R F MacKenzie who argued against it. However, he was sacked in 1974 for banning the belting of girls in his school.
Scottish schools were thirled to use of the belt for the simple reason that education authorities, and the vast majority of teachers and parents, believed that its use was essential for discipline. In his definitive history of Scotland, 'The Scottish Nation,' Professor Tom Devine states that Scottish culture 'completely accepted' corporal punishment. Adding, 'The parents were all for it.'
And they would be for the simple reason that many of them were also using corporal punishment at home. The social historian Richard Finlay makes some interesting observations about Scottish childhood in the 1930s.
There was an unusually wide range of words associated with physical punishment. 'Leathering', 'battering', 'tanning', 'skelping', 'bleaching', 'whipping', 'hammering', 'roasting', 'hiding' and 'thrashing' were familiar expressions for most children, as was the term 'doing', as in 'You'll get a doing.'
These words were also current in the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up. Finlay also points out that physical punishment was so much the norm that neighbours, shopkeepers and the police would also give kids a 'clout on the ear or a kick in the arse.' Youngsters would not want their parents to know that they had been hit by teachers or other adults because they were likely to get another belting.
The comedian Billy Connolly, who was severely abused as a child, jokes about the 'strange things' parents said to children. 'Can I go out on my bike?' 'What? Bike? I'll give you bike...' 'Can I go to the pictures?' 'What, pictures is it? I'll pictures you my lad... I'll make you smile on the other side of your face... I'll take my hand off your face.'
This type of punishment was (and still is) meted out to children in other countries of the world, but there are three reasons why hitting children may have been particularly common here. First, Scotland had atrocious overcrowding and poor housing conditions, so there was lots of family stress including commonplace hostility between men and women. Stress can easily lead to violence. Second, Scotland for centuries was a deeply religious country and greatly influenced by the Old Testament and its belief that it is wrong to 'spare the rod.' Finally, Scotland had high levels of street violence – people took offence easily and were quick to use their hands.
A few decades ago Scotland didn't change its mind about belting children at school. There was no widespread public campaign against it. It was the principled objection of two mothers which ultimately ended corporal punishment in Scotland. They argued that they should have the right as parents to say whether their child should be belted, and they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. Scottish education authorities and the British state fought hard for the status quo, but ultimately, the mothers won. Corporal punishment in Scottish state schools finally ended in 1987 and in independent schools in 2000. There's little doubt that state schools in Scotland have changed remarkably since then.
Did it matter that in Scotland it was commonplace for teachers and parents to physically chastise their children? People often recount adverse events in childhood such as beatings and bullying and then say it 'didn't do me any harm.' Victims often argue that such events toughened them up and boosted their resilience. But we now know from the extensive research into Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) that violence directed to children (and other experiences of family life) can have negative consequences. Neuroscience shows that unpredictable, fearful events can have an extremely negative effect on children's developing brains.
What's more, a meta-analysis of 50-years-worth of studies, encompassing more than 160,000 children, found that spanking was associated with long-lasting effects into adulthood including more mental health problems, aggression, lower self-esteem and poor relationships with parents. Not everyone suffers long-term effects from physical chastisement, but many do.
If a person's only exposure to violence was a few beltings at secondary school, this may not have affected them too badly. But minimal exposure was uncommon. Many young people, from the infant class on, were repeatedly belted. In Scotland, the education system was designed to instill fear. This is why Scottish teachers were encouraged to use the belt on a pupil in front of the whole class. My dragon primary 2 teacher never took me over her knee and smacked me, but I lived every day in fear that she would, and it was terrible to witness her meting out this punishment to classmates for trivial, unpredictable offences. I'm sure I wasn't the only six-year-old child sitting in that class, holding my breath and experiencing 'toxic stress' for the simple reason that there was no escape.
America's southern 'bible belt' states share some of Scotland's heritage. They too have a deeply religious past influenced by the Old Testament. Many of these states were even founded by Ulster Scots or the 'Scots Irish,' as the Americans say. Nineteen of these states still use corporal punishment in schools. Research shows that those punished in this way are more like to be African American or disabled. People in these states also argue ferociously for parents' right to hit their children. They also incarcerate a higher number of citizens than northern states and use capital punishment.
If the Catholic Church in Scotland and other ordinary Scots opposed to
a smacking ban get their way, the nation will effectively align itself
with the American south and ignore the fact that 52 countries in the
world have now banned smacking. We can't allow that to happen. We must
seize this opportunity and start facing up to the fact that how we raise children is Scotland's Achilles' heel.