Personally speaking

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The Independent Online
There are those who were caned at school and say it did them no harm. They learnt that school was a place for work, not for mucking teachers about. They gained an early respect for authority which helped turn them into law-abiding adults.

They are right. For them. They believe that teachers, struggling with classroom disruption, need support. Caning is an effective, conveniently cost-free sanction, foolishly confiscated in defiance of common sense by politically correct law makers.

Opponents will argue that they, too, were caned, but were harmed by the experience. The result was fear (or bravado) rather than respect, and often long-burning resentment, particularly if they felt the punishment was unfair or degrading. They were alienated from school, from teachers, even from learning itself. Some will point to evidence on the relationship between youthful physical chastisement and adult sadomasochism.

They are equally right. For them. They are also concerned to support teachers, but deny them the right to administer a punishment with an unpredictable long-term impact.

Where do teachers stand? The mood has changed. I do not believe teachers feel competent to judge which children will benefit, and which will be harmed. They should not have to risk defending themselves against a charge of child abuse. And I doubt most want a system that selects children whose parents agree to their being caned, but refuses the offspring of those who don't.

I suspect they will reject the idea of counselling a child one moment, and caning him the next. And the "him" is deliberate: the most ardent supporters of the cane have not yet risked arguing for violent girls to have equal opportunities to bend over.

I think few teachers would wish to risk provoking an assault by administering one. The vast majority, however hard pressed, will see beating children as a retreat into history, not a confident step towards the millennium.

Teachers certainly need support. Virtual reality solutions from politicians provide little help in the actuality of the classroom.

The Prime Minister's decision to allow Tory backbenchers a free vote on reintroducing the cane is simultaneously a blatant fudge and an electioneering ploy.

Facing a right-wing revolt, and with a wafer-thin majority, John Major cannot afford to be rid of his turbulent priests. By giving them their shout he will claim to be responding to the public mood and their concern. His real motive is different - to curb the rebels' ability to scoop the publicity they enjoy so much, however damaging to his personal authority. By challenging ministers to back the Government's position, all publicly loyal but some privately jockeying for his job, Major puts them on the spot, too. Gillian Shephard, initially wobbly, has already pledged support. Teachers have not pressed for a return to corporal punishment, she says, and she has listened to their silence.

Judging that there is little real likelihood of a Commons majority for bringing back the cane, Major can also be confident that there is little risk of an internationally embarrassing and legally hazardous challenge to European Court of Human Rights rulings. All clever stuff - but there is even cleverer to come. By seeming to encourage the debate rather than throttle it, Major hopes to open up pre-election rifts within Opposition ranks, and Labour in particular.

If Tony Blair denies Labour MPs a free vote on caning, Major will say it proves that he is just as authoritarian as his critics assert. Pro- beating Tories will also allege that Blair can talk all he likes about being tough on crime; when it comes to a concrete proposal for dealing with school disruption he is distinctly limp-wristed. If Blair takes off the whips (ironic phrase), they will claim that any voting split shows just how thin the stucco of New Labour policy really is.

There is little enough clear blue water between Tory and Labour education policies. The tanker of muddied liquid which Tory backbencher James Pawsey has parked on the forecourt of Number 10 could be just what the spin doctor ordered.

However hollow the resulting parliamentary charade, the tabloids alone will see that the issue is debated beyond Westminster. Essentially there will be two positions, both tenable but irreconcilable with each othern

The writer is General Secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.