Breaking the Taboos and Silences of Belting Scotland’s Children

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, April 11th 2018

Scottish education has always had an important, even disproportionate place in society – emphasising its distinctiveness, traditions, and of course, multiple individual stories and experiences.

Yet our education system has had for all the good and positive stories, too many which are bad and dark. This legacy continues to this day. For all the pride in the best of our schools and education, there has been a historical culture of fear, punishment and violence, and teachers and authority using power inappropriately to control children.

These attitudes are often assumed to be in the past, but they haven’t left us fully. A ComRes survey at the end of 2017, produced due to Scottish Government backed proposals to ban the smacking of children, showed that a tolerance of violence was widespread. 74% of adults in Scotland surveyed did not think that smacking a child should be a criminal offence; seven in ten said smacking was not child abuse; an astonishing 85% said they were smacked as a child, while 66% said it was sometimes necessary to smack a child. We have grown up with a culture of violence towards children which not surprisingly still affects present day attitudes.

This was brought into public view by the recent debate on belting which began in the ‘Scottish Review’s’ piece by Carol Craig that motivated Ian Jack to reply in ‘The Guardian’ that belting might have been ‘unfair’ but that it ‘had done me no harm’ – a view that unleashed an avalanche of reflections about corporal punishment and violence against children.

I have long been an admirer of Jack as a writer – as he has consistently shown an emotional depth and awareness of the importance of detail, stories and memories – but here his assertion of ‘no harm’ seemed to be at best superficial and too narrow, and at worse denying deeper factors. Craig responded, recognising that this is important in how we bring up children, but with ramifications to this day way beyond schools and education.

What was noteworthy and revelatory in this exchange was that it tapped into real voices and experiences. At the heart of educational and professional class Scotland we still hear very little from those for whom this matters the most: young people, and next to nothing of substance about the consequences of punishment and violence.

If you think that is an overstatement, look at two huge tomes – David McCrone’s recently published ‘The New Sociology of Scotland’ and the academic ‘Scottish Education’ (now away to enter its fifth edition). Both have no individual pupil or former pupil voices talking about how education worked or didn’t work for them, and not one person commenting on what it was like to be punished or disciplined (with the latter managing over one hundred separate chapters but not one on this); a kind of deliberate silencing in studies of such supposed comprehensiveness.

What is still too prevalent in our culture is a pronounced dichotomy between public and private language and debate on education. This used to be a characteristic which defined much of Scottish Labour Party discussions on the subject when the party was the leading force in the land, and was filled with lots of teachers as party members (when the party also ran many councils). Thus, in private people would talk about all sorts of things such as what to do with bad teachers (how to identify them, retraining, weeding them out), and how to encourage and reward good teachers.

Yet, in public, this distinction between good and bad teachers was missing from all Labour considerations – deemed too politically hot a topic due to the institutional power of the teacher unions within the Labour Party. Now with Labour out of office nationally and locally, such a self-denying ordinance of two very different public/private languages seems to have become internalised by the SNP.

Maybe some of this controlling of debate around education is as much cultural as anything else. It is in a sense a system of social control and order, and has probably been strengthened by the power of identification with education in Scotland, and the potent myths and folklore around it: the idea that our education system was once the best in the world, the invoking of the much misunderstood ‘democratic intellect’, the respect given to the domnie and the importance of the lad o’pairts. And maybe all of this has contributed to our collective silence on corporal punishment.

Personal experiences matter if we are to break the taboos and silences. Thirteen years of Dundee state education gave me many wonderful moments. I had the privilege to be part of the rising tide of post-war Scottish society – and the last wave of that in the late 1970s – one which inculcated in myself and many of my friends a confidence, security, optimism and curiosity about the world.

Like many lucky children my life was blessed and enriched by a host of inspirational, supportive teachers who encouraged enquiry and discovery. These ranged from Miss Holroyd, Mrs. Stewart and Mrs. McLaren at Ardler Primary School, to David Low and Alex Stanley at Rockwell High School, in Dundee. But it also saw me, like many others, belted on numerous occasions.

One occasion in primary school still jars with me. We had to correctly spell ten words each day, and on one notable occasion, after 27 consecutive days of 100% spelling accuracy, I got three words wrong which led to being automatically belted – which sometimes produced a long daily queue (including several girls: more of which below). This leaves a sour taste even today. I noted that there was no prize or even recognition for excellence, but instant identification and punishment for failure.

In secondary school I had a Maths teacher who enjoyed belting more than he enjoyed Maths. A French teacher who had little authority or ability to hold a class belted so much that he went, due to the amount of practice, from being a very poor belter to a very good one; thus finding the only area of teaching that he excelled at.

The biggest lesson in this for me was long lasting and damaging. It taught me for the first time how to lie – and how to lie to my parents. As a child you have a propensity to tell the truth until the world and experience points out the occasional cost and folly of this.

The first time I was belted in primary school I innocently went home and told my parents expecting sympathy. Instead, they assumed I was in the wrong and told me off. The next time I was belted I did not tell my parents and kept it to myself to avoid double punishment. This set a pattern for future belting in primary and secondary.

Being belted had a class and gender dimension. It was proportionately more about working class kids and more boys than girls being belted. Ian Jack remembers that he could not recall any girls being belted in his school years, which beggars belief. There is also a state/private school divide, with for all the brutality of certain private schools, many privately educated pupils I know sailing through their entire education never being belted once – hence further widening the class divide. Belting contributed harm and punishment and reinforced a Scottish crisis of confidence in a significant number of state educated pupils.

There has, considering the prevalence of this, been across too many areas of society a manufactured, deliberate silence and even silencing about this, which isn’t healthy or productive, and which is long overdue for overturning.

Maybe if we should accept that for the mass majority of Scots there was no such thing as a golden era of education. Instead we had even at its best, a system which rewarded a ‘meritocratic’ elite, while using punitive measures, discipline and control, to keep the vast majority of the population accustomed to being diminished, marginalised and not listened to in their lives.

If we could begin to reclaim what for many might be painful and traumatic experiences, then it might assist in understanding the many moral anxieties and doubts which exist about our current education system and begin a debate about changing it for the better and actually doing something. We might even understand that some of our contemporary worries are a delayed response to the harm and violence inflicted on so many and that our wider cultural attitudes of being disinclined to take risks, put our heads above the parapet, and make mistakes, are linked to its continued shadow. Other countries emerging from authoritarian pasts – such as in very different (and more stark) contexts – post-Communist central and eastern European countries – would have some similar experiences.

All over the Western world since the 1960s we have been reacting to the limits of traditional authority, challenging and overthrowing their ancien regimes, and then living with the unintended consequences of a freedom which isn’t as we planned it or wanted. We have gone from a world of judgemental, even sometimes belittling authority to a world where we are meant to trust no one but our own inner self and the market.

Instead, we have to remake the good idea of authority that we create and make ourselves based on consent and equality. Eliane Glaser put it succinctly this week: ‘We need to disentangle authority from privilege, and find new ways to ensure that authority is constituted of knowledge, experience and conduct …’

This is about much more than the Scottish tradition of living in the past. One ‘Guardian’ comment said: ‘Why are we harping back to something which has been gone for 40 years? … So I say again, move on, and be grateful that we are trying to build a better, kinder, fairer country for future generations.’

But it isn’t that simple unless we breakthrough the taboos and silences which have defined so much of Scotland, its culture of violence, and infantilising a large section of the adult population. Carol Craig said that ‘how we raise children is Scotland’s Achilles’ heel’ and ended her response to Ian Jack saying that our ‘belt happy culture’ has ‘had a negative, and an unexpected effect on Scottish culture.’ This is a debate as important as that over Scotland’s constitutional status, if not even more critical: it is about how we nurture, protect and love our future generations. What could be more important than that? Isn’t that central to the kind of future Scotland we want to be and bring about?