Cane mutineers to give Major stick

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The Government faces the prospect of a rebellion by backbenchers determined to secure the return of corporal punishment in schools.

They were boosted at the weekend by four newspaper opinion polls showing support for caning running at two-to-one among the public.

They came after the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, became the latest minister to voice support for corporal punishment. Senior Tories privately acknowledged there was now strong backing right across the parliamentary party for its restoration.

Last Tuesday the Prime Minister ruled out a return to corporal punishment after the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, said she viewed it as a "useful deterrent".

On Friday Robin Squire, a junior education minister, told the Commons he also favoured the cane "as a last resort".

Then Mr Howard became the most senior minister to enter the controversy when he told BBC Radio 4 he believed there was a place for corporal punishment "in extremis".

James Pawsey, the chairman of the Tory backbench education committee and a leader of the revolt, said the momentum of their campaign could force Mr Major to think again.

"The Prime Minister is an eminently reasonable man. The Prime Minister weighs matters up carefully and I believe that if the Prime Minister were to see there was a substantial or overwhelming case in favour then he might reconsider," he told BBC Radio 4's World This Weekend.

Mr Pawsey is planning to table an amendment to the Education Bill which would enable schools to write caning into home-school contracts signed by parents.

But the Secretary of State for Wales, William Hague, insisted that the Government would not be swayed by the apparent swing of public opinion.

"We don't have government by instant opinion poll," he told BBC1's On the Record.

"It is a side-issue. It is not going to come back in the current parliament. The Government's policy is not going to change."

The latest controversy comes at a time when school discipline is high on the political agenda following the troubles at the Ridings School, in Yorkshire, and at Manton School, in Nottinghamshire.

Tonight on the BBC's Panorama programme, the former head of the Ridings School, Karen Stansfield, claims that mounting pressure on her staff, following the accelerated merger of two schools to form the Ridings, may have contributed to the school's decline. She says that staff from the two schools were openly competing with each other for jobs, with many having their teaching skills disrupted as they tried to deal with problem pupils aiming to establish a new pecking order in the merged school.

In the programme Nigel de Gruchy, leader of the NASUWT also hints that not all the school's problems may have been the sole fault of its pupils. He says his union "will be anxious to work with the new management, to set the school off on a good start. And if that means that some, certain teachers have to go, including some of my members, then that's fair enough."

Yesterday away from the Ridings crisis in Halifax, Mr De Gruchy called on the Government to intervene as a compromise aimed at reopening Manton school appeared in danger of collapse.

Mr de Gruchy urged Mrs Shephard to step in to settle the long-running dispute over the school, which was closed by a teachers' strike over the behaviour of a 10-year-old boy.