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Short-sharp slap v mental abuse?

Nigel Morris-Cotterill

When does non-corporal punishment become its own form of abuse?

Parents have long sent their children to their room without supper and teachers told pupils to stand in the corner to reflect on their behaviour. Games and P.E. teachers had their own special forms of punishment that usually included both mental and physical aspects. These were part of a suite of punishments that included corporal punishment.

Then came the move to ban all forms of corporal punishment in schools and in the home. As countries moved to make every form of physical correction illegal, parents and teachers have found themselves with severely limited options. The consequences of this are startling.

As the UK's problems with knife crime return to the headlines (it's not the first time and it won't be the last), some people are drawing attention to "exclusion orders" in schools. Education has been abandoned to the broadly socialist sector of society since the 1960s, regardless of what party has been in power. This is the group that say that poverty causes crime (the balanced view is that it does not cause crime except when people are in extremis and that often poverty is the result, not cause, of crime), for example. It is the group that has positively militated against the family, against monogamy and even against the young remaining "at home" with parents until they marry. It is the group that has promoted, at various times, promiscuity without responsibility and encouraged a general lack of discipline and structure in the family both at home and outside it. We are now into the third, in some cases fourth, generation of children who have been born to a world where personal responsibility is alien.

This means that those who are responsible for discipline have never encountered discipline. They know nothing of control except to shout, increasingly stridently, or to remove a child from a class or even from school.

This might all sound terribly harsh but when one reads the story, at https://www.bbc.com/news/educa..., of the young girl, with a degree of autism, who was placed in an isolation cubicle, escorted there and back, had her mobile phone confiscated when she tried to call her mother, questions of mental abuse are clear. This was not detention as previous generations knew it: this is, literally, a cubicle, like those in offices, but the size of a voting booth. Someone designed this and someone else approved its use for pupils. In the case of the girl in the BBC story, she was sent to such a cubicle more than 240 times. That is cruel and unusual punishment and eventually she tried to commit suicide rather than go back for another session. She is by no means unusual: some children interviewed in other stories, have been detained in such "internal inclusion units" for entire school weeks. Education advisers defend them as a way of removing unruly children from the class because teachers cannot cope.

What is worse is that that was not an isolated example: these isolation chambers are in use across England's education system. The government, the BBC says, even has a guideline: the children should not be kept in isolation "longer than is necessary."

But, there is no requirement for schools to report to parents that children are being treated in this way. And while special needs pupils are supposed to be subject to specific review, there seems to be no evidence that this is happening with an estimated 5,000 cases put into such chambers.

Let's be clear about this: when someone produced fake news saying that calves were kept in huts so they could be slaughtered for veal, there was widespread condemnation of the practice which didn't even exist. Yet, somehow, the practice of putting children into boxes closed on three sides (the opening being behind them) and ordered to be silent, has attracted no such movement.

Parents anxious to teach their children right from wrong have long been left with, basically, a TV or computer game ban and a period on "the naughty step." Such treatment is often divorced by time and space from the conduct for which the punishment is meted out. One has to ask if it is unrealistic to expect a child to associate the punishment with conduct that might have taken place several hours earlier. The lack of a structured, disciplined home life is one of the core reasons that schools inherit unruly pupils with which teachers cannot cope - and which teachers find will not accept training, even from an early age. Worse, parents then criticise those teachers who do try to instil discipline and responsibility.

There is also the question of whether psychological punishments are more, or less, or equally damaging to a quick slap across the back of the legs, immediately associating discomfort with conduct. This is not, emphatically not, a suggestion that children should be beaten; we should not see a return to six of the best with bleeding hands and buttocks. Equally, we should not see the fat kids ordered to run around a football pitch for failing to do a set number of press-ups in a set time. The humiliation and punishment delivered by sports teachers was, often, cruel and unusual - and would have been so anywhere except in the military , where the fat kids wouldn't have been there to be abused in the first place. A quick check around the office found a range of conduct with one person saying that, in the 1970s, his school used to use what have become known as "stress positions" for those who didn't come up to the standards required. One, by a particularly draconian maths teacher, has stuck in the memory: you can try it. Stand, arms above your head, finger-tips just touching but not enough to provide support for each other, for 15 minutes.

Schools have, over decades, become quick to suspend or expel pupils, which is what "exclusion" means, because there is almost nothing they can do before reaching that point. Teachers have long considered detention as much a punishment for them as it is for the pupil. Even isolation isn't new: a pupil left to sit in an empty classroom over break or, even, lunchtime is an ancient remedy. But sitting in an empty classroom for an hour is a long way from being put in a box.

Battery chickens can see out of their cages; children in isolation boxes cannot. Prisoners can call to each other unless they are in solitary confinement; children in isolation boxes cannot. Office workers in cubicles have space that exceeds the width of their shoulders; children in isolation boxes often do not.

It is absolutely right that children should be punished in ways that do no permanent harm. You choose: would you have preferred a slap on the back of the legs or the long term psychological harm that the alternatives present? There has been no proper debate about this: the self-appointed experts have gradually moved the focus so that emotional harm is regarded as acceptable and physical punishment - with no harm beyond the immediate shock value - is regarded as heinous.

Someone's got it wrong and the evidence is pointing to those who have claimed to be protecting the children having done precisely the opposite.