I've changed my mind over smacking

After two weeks teaching eight year olds in a primary school, I would leave the room weeping with frustration
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The Independent Online

Common sense ruled the day this week when MPs decided to accept a compromise devised by the Lords which would still allow parents to reasonably chastise their children and administer a "light slap". The Children Bill may, however, prove to be unworkable. In the aftermath of a heated debate, agencies that work with children and the police have said that it could be a "lawyer's charter", impossible to put into practice.

Common sense ruled the day this week when MPs decided to accept a compromise devised by the Lords which would still allow parents to reasonably chastise their children and administer a "light slap". The Children Bill may, however, prove to be unworkable. In the aftermath of a heated debate, agencies that work with children and the police have said that it could be a "lawyer's charter", impossible to put into practice.

But a wider issue was at stake here than whether children are entitled to the same human rights as adults. For the second time in a week, the Government found itself in the unfortunate position of nanny. First, we had Tessa Jowell implying that people who don't want their local swimming pool turned into a super-casino (as is planned in York) are dreary middle class nimbies denying others their "rights". Now Margaret Hodge, the Children's minister and one of the least popular members of the Government, has to tread very carefully when balancing the interests of parents with those of their children.

How far should the law intervene within the home? Up to now, parents accused of child abuse had been able to claim the Victorian defence of "reasonable chastisement", and it was undoubtedly misused. As a result, the European Court of Human Rights has forced us to reconsider the law relating to punishing children.

The group Children are Unbeatable has campaigned long and hard for an outright ban on smacking. They nagged me long enough to get my name on their list of supporters along with hundreds of prominent Britons, from Richard Branson, Melvyn Bragg and Noel Edmonds to Gayle Hunnicutt, Virginia Ironside and Patsy Kensit.

But after spending two weeks teaching eight year olds in a primary school, the longest and most intense exposure I have ever had to small, irritating children who constantly misbehave, I have to say I have recanted on the subject of corporal punishment. Of course, it is evil to mistreat a child in any way, and physical punishment of a child is disgraceful. But there's a mile of difference between the threat of a light slap from a parent and the ritual torture and abuse that characterised the appalling Victoria Climbie case.

In order to control my class, I was carefully explained a set of guidelines forbidding any kind of physical force or intimidation. I was rehearsed in an "exit" strategy where naughty children were given verbal and written warnings on the blackboard, then sat at a special desk, and finally sent to the headmaster for a talking to. At no time was I allowed to touch a child or shout at them.

I would leave the room at the end of the day weeping with frustration that several of the worst offenders would simply run rings around me. Quite simply, they had no idea of discipline whatsoever. Nevertheless, I regarded exiting them from the classroom as a sign of my failure, not theirs.

But I was inheriting whatever behaviour patterns were permitted at home. Every night, I would sit and wonder what kind of life these undisciplined, squirming, mouthy kids had outside school, and whether their parents hit them or not. In the end, I decided that most of them were constantly ignored at home, which is why they were such determined attention-seekers at school. They had no rules, no guidelines and no routine whatsoever.

Before starting my assignment, I read through my old primary school records, including several pages copied from the "punishment book", dated around the mid Fifties. In it, the head teacher had noted the names of three children she had slapped on the hand with a ruler for repeatedly throwing food around and disobeying the school dinner helpers.

These days, that head would have found herself in court. When I attended primary school, there was naughtiness, but plenty of discipline, largely because most parents regarded it as their duty to set out rules at home, no matter how unpopular it might make them with their offspring.

At the moment, the Government is undecided about how much it wants to intervene in our lives and sends out conflicting messages. On the one hand, Tessa Jowell thinks we are grown up enough to withstand the onslaught of serried ranks of fruit machines with unlimited jackpots, but on the other, politicians like Ken Livingstone are preparing to ban smoking outright in public places. John Reid is not in favour of this, patronisingly claiming that smoking is one of the few pleasures avail- able to the working classes. So who decides when we have rights and when we don't?

Tony Blair and Charles Clarke think that citizenship is such an important part of growing up in Britain today that it is taught in schools from primary upwards, along with discussions about feelings, friendship and relationships. On the other hand, the business of teaching people to be parents, administer the correct kind of appropriate punishment, reward good behaviour and institute consistent discipline has become the job of the teacher, working under a series of government directives.

The debate about how far we want government to intervene in our lives is crucial as we see a large increase in youth crime, which is surely caused primarily by deficient parenting. Apart from being lousy parents, we certainly don't set the young any examples about what to eat and drink, with the result that they follow us by guzzling alcopops, binge drinking and consuming huge amounts of junk food.

The King's Fund think tank conducted a survey in which it discovered that three quarters of us want the Government to legislate to force us to lead healthier lives. But Mr Blair is so sensitive to being dubbed "nanny" that he has shied away from taking up the challenge. Instead, we have a whole lot of politically correct waffle, in which we have to aim to get fitter by adopting a set of "standards" which don't ban or enforce anything, just as teachers have to keep discipline via discussion, reasoning, no-touch no-shout tactics. God forbid that people who smoke should pay more towards their national health care. They have rights, don't they?

But if they refuse to send their children to school, they, not the children, will be sent to prison. And if these children annoy everyone else in their street, they'll be issued with an Asbo and have their movements severely restricted. So much for that set of human rights.

And you, the parent, must make sure your children eat healthily even though school meals may exceed the recommended levels of salt and additives and cost less than prison food. And, because Schools minister Stephen Twigg is so feeble, your children can buy fizzy drinks from slot machines at the very place they go to study, even though you may have banned them at home. I suppose that's called a "right" too, along with our right to administer a light slap now and then, and not leave a mark.

Doesn't sound like a lot of joined-up thinking, does it? Perhaps the one set of people who could do with a couple of weeks in a primary school are parents and MPs. Then they will be equipped to decide how to tackle the challenge ahead - creating a generation of people who want to be parents with all the challenges that involves, from smacking to snacking. Until then, the state is trying to play too many roles and failing at most of them.

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