Canes stripe the flesh of education policy

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The Independent Online
Clear Blue Water Muddied, Part Two. With the thugs locked up for life or longer, their weapons de choix banned and all parties marching discordantly and incoherently behind the banner of social cohesion, it was time to turn Parliament's febrile attention to that other great source of criminal behaviour and delinquency: Britain's schools.

But, just as knives had cut up the Government's finely planned crime strategy on Monday, so canes put stripes on the delicate flesh of its education policy yesterday. At breakfast time, the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Shephard, had appeared to back the return of the cane, but by the time lunch was on the table she had received an admonitory correction from John Major. His chosen instrument was a mobile phone and his message was clear: no whacking.

Given the way things are going down at Westminster, we have thus been spared a very nasty escalation of legal child-battering. Had the Tories endorsed the cane, how long would it have been before Labour rediscovered the birch? Or the Scottish National Party the tawse? Or John Redwood (citing the glories won by our Navy in the 19th century) the cat o'nine tails? Knives would have been banned, except for use upon our own children by an authorised member of the NASUWT. (To be fair, let me make it clear that I would not want to do the job of members of that union. And nor, apparently, do they).

But by the time everybody got together for Prime Minister's Questions, Mrs Shephard's on-the-hoof policy-making had already fallen at the first jump, and all in the chamber were whispering about it. As usual there were three camps: those who had experienced caning and did not like it (Labour), those who had experienced it and did like it (Tory) and those who had never experienced it (female MPs and Liberal Democrats), some of whom liked it on the behalf of others.

Several Conservatives, like Tony Marlow, made clear their disappointment at the turn that events had taken. He told Mrs Shephard later (during the education part of the debate on the Queen's Speech) that he would be bringing an amendment to her Education Bill, authorising the return of corporal punishment.

Mrs Shephard - speaking, as always, like the sensible chairwoman at a hospice association annual general meeting - refused to say whether or not she would vote for such a measure, but "my personal view is that corporal punishment can be a useful deterrent". At which a little sigh of pleasure rippled along the Tory benches, as inner images of La Belle Gill Sans Mercie, of lowered trousers and hot buttocks, of things that never did them any harm, passed from member to member. All taken away (as usual) by killjoy Major, who, according to Mrs Shephard, "takes a different view".

Never mind, because there were still exclusions and detentions to come. At the weekend Nigel de Gruchy of the aforementioned NASUWT had estimated that 150,000 pupils needed to be excluded from school. And Mrs Shephard's Bill will make it that much easier to exclude them. But, as I sat in the gallery, I couldn't help wondering where all these excludees were going to go. They won't be able to gather outside the old knife shop, as in times of yore, or go down to the shooting range. A spot of burglary is likely to lead to a life sentence.

Then the answer hit me; they must all get married. What could be a more positive way of transmitting family values to the very young, than to insist on their betrothal? Trump that, Tony!

Punishment debate, page 4