Saturday, September 24, 2011

Wrong response to poverty and underfunded classrooms: UK toys with bringing back the cane

I was surprised to come home one evening this week and see in the UK papers that there is talk of bringing back the cane, and regular use of corporal punishment in schools.

The UK paper The Express reported:

"Almost all parents and more than two-thirds of pupils believe strong leadership is needed in the classroom after years of teachers’ authority being undermined.

They say teachers must be given the power and freedom to discipline unruly pupils. Forty-nine per cent of parents think corporal punishment such as smacking and caning should be reintroduced for very bad behaviour." (

What a step backwards! No doubt much of this "public opinion" has been stoked by the reaction of British politicians to the recent riots. Rather than examine or discuss any of the root problems, most espoused a simplistic law and order response - punish the wrong doers. Mere suggestions that poverty, unemployment, and a sense of alienation from community were factors were either ignored or ridiculed by those in government. Governments and politicians neither want to take the blame nor examine, in an evidence based fashion, how to address the larger issues that erupt into social disorder.

And perhaps not surprisingly, one of the few groups to come out against the proposal - the teachers' unions - were criticized for taking a position against corporal punishment. But regardless, one union official was quoted by the Express:

"A mythology has grown up around corporal punishment and its effectiveness which was never borne out by reality. A study of inspection reports from the 1950s highlighted behaviour that would not be tolerated today, such as vandalising school property or assaulting teachers. These were common features of life in many schools despite routine use of corporal punishment. In fact, evidence suggests that behaviour has improved significantly since corporal punishment was abolished."

No one (thankfully) is talking much about corporal punishment in Canada. But some of the underlying issues are relevant to us here. Poverty and underfunded classrooms, for example. And the same type of tactics are used to divert the public from the real problems.

For example, it is fashionable right now in the American and Canadian school "reform" dialogue to discuss the importance of having a quality teacher. Yet the research is very clear that while teachers play a dominant role in children's educational success among school factors, there is a much bigger role played by parents and socio-economic status. The average income of a student's household is a much higher predictor of marks and standardized test results than who their teacher is or was.

So why is the dominant message "fix the teacher"? Is it really because there are so many bad teachers around?

While there are always some practitioners in any profession who need to go, the real reason for our politicians to raise the "fix the teacher" mantra is that they don't want to fix the other problems - large class sizes, a shortage of specialty teachers, a lack of support for students with special needs, and perhaps most critical - child poverty. These cost money. And significant amounts of money (although perhaps not when compared the BC place stadium roof!).

The real story is about who to blame: blame the kids - punish them; blame the teacher - fire them. What about blaming the people who are truly accountable? The governments and politicians who choose to point fingers rather than examine and solve problems.

No comments:

Post a Comment