Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British Schools

British schoolchildren demanded an end to corporal punishment in a wave of school strikes in 1911, but Parliament did not abolish the practice until 1986.

Summary of Event

School discipline through corporal punishment is as old as organized schools in the Western world. Egyptian papyri and Mesopotamian clay tablets tell of masters beating their students to get them to learn. In the Middle Ages, the education of children in monasteries, cathedral schools, and parish schools was not uncommon for children above the age of seven. Younger children were educated in the family according to the abilities and status of the parents. Whether at home or at school, corporal punishment of children was probably fairly common, but the evidence suggests that severe beatings were considered unacceptable, and there is no substantial evidence that medieval parents lacked affection for their children. Corporal punishment was considered a normal means of disciplining refractory children and young scholars. Corporal punishment, British schools
Student strikes
School strike of 1911 (Great Britain)
[kw]Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British Schools (Sept. 4-15, 1911)
[kw]Corporal Punishment in British Schools, Students Challenge (Sept. 4-15, 1911)
[kw]Punishment in British Schools, Students Challenge Corporal (Sept. 4-15, 1911)
[kw]British Schools, Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in (Sept. 4-15, 1911)
[kw]Schools, Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British (Sept. 4-15, 1911)
Corporal punishment, British schools
Student strikes
School strike of 1911 (Great Britain)
[g]England;Sept. 4-15, 1911: Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British Schools[02850]
[c]Education;Sept. 4-15, 1911: Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British Schools[02850]
[c]Civil rights and liberties;Sept. 4-15, 1911: Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British Schools[02850]
[c]Social issues and reform;Sept. 4-15, 1911: Students Challenge Corporal Punishment in British Schools[02850]
Morant, Sir Robert Laurie
Blair, Sir Robert
Headlam, Stewart
Gorst, Sir John Eldon

In the mid-seventeenth century, the ideas of the Czech pastor and educator Jan Komensk Komensk{yacute}, Jan (also known as Jan Comenius) began to spread in England. Komensk questioned the utility of corporal punishment, argued that teaching should appeal to the senses and the intellect rather than require rote memorization aided by the birch (that is, a birch rod used to strike unruly or inattentive students), and contended that education should be humane. English educational reformers took up Komensk ’s ideas. At the end of the century, the educator and diarist John Aubrey Aubrey, John proposed the creation of academies in which students would be trained to learn for the sake of learning. In his schools, there would be “no such thing as the turning up of bare buttocks for pedants to exercise their cruel lusts” with whips and canes. Such ideas, however, were minority ones throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. Corporal punishment remained the norm in English schools.

Most English children, however, did not attend state-supported schools until after 1870. Before then, if children went to school at all, they went either to elementary schools sponsored by religious groups (most commonly operated by the Church of England, but schools were also operated by the Wesleyan Methodist Church and the Roman Catholic Church) or to private schools operated as profit-making ventures. The role of the state’s Education Department was limited to inspecting those religious schools that received state matching funds and to supporting the training of teachers. Discipline in the religious schools was enforced with the birch. In the private-venture schools, in contrast, masters were less ready to use the rod, largely because the parents of working-class children often resented such discipline. This was not true in all cases, of course—sometimes children who were beaten at school got a second beating at home, and sometimes parents welcomed the schoolmasters’ public punishment of their children.

English elementary education was transformed by the Education Act of 1870, Education Act (1870) which permitted the creation of elected boards of education with the power to fund elementary schools by levying local property taxes. Board schools, as they were called, grew in number between 1870 and 1914, and increasing numbers of children received their education in them. Because the board schools relied on corporal punishment, more and more children experienced the birch.

Not all parents approved of corporal punishment, however, and from time to time they brought charges of assault against schoolmasters or even assaulted the masters. The courts usually backed up the schoolmasters in such cases unless a beating was especially brutal or the magistrate had especially vivid memories of his own beatings. In one such case, the magistrate decided that the cane used to administer the beating was not strong enough and presented the master with a stronger weapon. Occasionally, priests of the Church of England caned children who attended the services of rival churches.

Public attitudes toward corporal punishment, not only in the schools but also in other areas of British life, changed in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Public executions, long a staple of the British scene, were abolished in 1868. After a long debate, flogging in the British army was ended in 1881. Corporal punishment in the schools remained a hot topic for argument. Humanitarians basically followed the line laid down by Komensk two hundred years earlier. They maintained that the practice was indecent, brutalizing, and counterproductive to the learning process. Supporters of corporal punishment thought that the practice was normal. They argued that God had ordained the rod as the appropriate way to train children. They also believed that corporal punishment instilled discipline and character. By the 1880’s, however, the arguments in favor of corporal punishment had begun to seem old-fashioned.

Working-class radical and labor organizations were in the forefront of opposition to corporal punishment in the schools. As labor-related candidates began to be elected to school boards, they campaigned for the abolition, or at least the limitation, of corporal punishment. Many of the school board members sponsored by the Independent Labour Party after its organization in 1893 took a vocal role in opposition to corporal punishment. At the turn of the century, opponents of corporal punishment organized the Society for the Reform of School Discipline, Society for the Reform of School Discipline a national pressure group that collected statistics, produced literature in an effort to mold public opinion, and lobbied members of Parliament and educational administrators to end corporal punishment.

The Education Department’s policy on corporal punishment reflected the attitudinal change. Education inspectors had long complained about instances of excessively harsh discipline. In the 1880’s, the department began formalizing specific recommendations for the inspectors. These were that only the headmaster should cane, not student teachers or members of the school’s board of managers; that caning should be used only as a last resort; and that written records of all canings should be kept. These regulations were dropped in the 1890’s, but in 1901 a new set of regulations was introduced by Sir John Eldon Gorst, who oversaw the Education Department. Gorst’s regulations, which probably were drafted by Sir Robert Laurie Morant, the department’s chief civil servant, established the principles that corporal punishment was to be forbidden in kindergartens and in girls’ schools, and that in boys’ schools it was not to be used as an ordinary method of punishment. The regulations, however, left the implementation of the principles to the judgment of each school’s headmaster and board of managers. In practice, then, caning continued to be a common method of punishment.

What the children thought about corporal punishment is unclear. Written reminiscences of school life come mostly from the middle and upper classes, and some writers have looked back at the birch with nostalgia. It is much more likely that children hated the birch, as evidenced in October, 1889, when a number of short-lived schoolboys’ strikes closed schools in London, Leeds, Liverpool, and Northampton. Inspired by the successful strikes of London gas workers and dockworkers that summer, the boys demanded a shorter school day, free meals, and the abolition of school fees, corporal punishment, and homework. The strike was put down easily enough, but it was the forerunner of the London school strike of 1911.

The years 1910 and 1911 in Britain were tense with respect to labor relations. The economy was prospering, and corporations were earning large profits. Workers, however, were dissatisfied with their lot. Despite the high level of corporate profits, workers’ weekly wages did not increase. Slow but steady inflation during the preceding fifteen years had eroded the purchasing power of the pound, so workers actually had seen their economic position worsen. Finally, workers’ political aspirations, expressed in the Labour Party, were frustrated because Parliament was dominated by the Liberal and Conservative Parties. Labour thus was unable to achieve its main political goal, the legislative reversal of two court decisions, that in the Taff Vale Railway case and the Osbourne judgment, which limited the legal activities of trade unions.

These factors led to numerous strikes, walkouts, demonstrations, and even riots in 1910 and 1911. Complicating matters was the general upswing in violence, both in words and in deeds, that characterized the period. Tensions over the constitutional role of the House of Lords, the relationship of Ireland to Britain, and the rise of the militant woman suffrage movement created an atmosphere that fostered violence as a means of solving problems.

The school strike of 1911 occurred within this context of violence. It started in Llanelly, South Wales, on Monday, September 4, when pupils walked out of the Bigyn Council Boys’ School to protest caning. Newspapers treated this as a schoolboy lark or dismissed it as a prank, but on Friday, September 8, several schools in Liverpool were struck. The Liverpool boys demanded the abolition of both the cane and school fees, an extra half day of holiday per week, and pay of a penny a week for monitors.

Over the weekend, word of the strikes spread through what can only be called a children’s grapevine, and Monday, September 11, saw the strike spread across the nation. Children at six schools in the East London working-class districts of Shoreditch and Islington went out. The next day, the movement spread in London and to schools in Hull, Sheffield, Bradford, and Grimsby, all industrial towns in the north of England. On Wednesday, schools in the Battersea neighborhood of South London went out, as did schools in Leeds and Birkenhead in the north, Coventry and Nottingham in the Midlands, Colchester in the southeast, Greenock in Scotland, and Dublin. Thursday saw strikes at Newcastle, Middlesborough, and Blackburn in the north, the seaport of Southampton, and Stoke-on-Trent, Burton-on-Trent, and Birmingham in the Midlands. The week ended with walkouts in Sunderland, Lancaster, and Cardiff in Wales.

The response of the authorities was to use both the police and the cane to break the strikes. Sir Robert Blair, the education officer of the London County Council, in charge of state-supported elementary and secondary schools in greater London, denied that any strikes were happening, secure in the knowledge that police constables had been sent to each school where a strike was in progress. Stewart Headlam, an Anglican priest who had become a Labour Party socialist and who was the member of the London County Council most active in promoting education, was furious about the strike. “They should be whipped,” he angrily declared. Headlam’s progressive educational ideas did not include abandoning the cane. The London County Council’s Education Committee under Blair’s leadership reasserted its right to beat students. The schoolchildren’s revolt against the cane had been put down.


The individual schools’ strikes had much in common. First, they were ephemeral, rarely lasting for longer than a day. Second, the student strikers’ goals were similar, as they all wanted abolition of the cane and of school fees. Third, most of the strikes took place in industrial areas that were the scenes of strikes by adult workers. Fourth, the children, some of whom undoubtedly came from union families, clearly were adapting the methods of industrial action that they saw being used around them. They formed strike committees, exhorted their fellow students with violent rhetoric, and organized marches with banners like those of the labor unions. Some striking children threw stones at the children who chose to go to school, thereby emulating their parents even in intimidating strikebreakers.

Historians cannot identify the children involved in the strike, or even who their leaders were. Newspapers and other observers were so dismissive that they did not bother even to record the names of the strike leaders, thus it is impossible to know who participated or how that participation may have affected these individuals’ later lives.

The school strike probably was bound to fail. Much larger strikes, put on by powerful unions and involving the suspension of economically important labor such as transport and mining, failed. How could a strike by schoolchildren hope to succeed?

After World War II, progressive educators began to reexamine methods of discipline and came to reject corporal punishment as an appropriate, or even an effective, method. Two important studies of the British educational system commissioned by the government, the Newsom Report of 1963 and the Plowden Report of 1967, recommended the abolition of corporal punishment. Responding to these reports, some local education authorities ended corporal punishment in their districts. The government, however, declined to make any general rules, and the teachers’ unions opposed abolition despite their socialist ideology, fearing that they could not keep discipline in their classrooms without the rod.

Some teachers rejected the birch, however, and formed the Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment (STOPP) in the early 1970’s. This organization campaigned for abolition throughout the decade. Partly as a result of STOPP’s efforts, about 20 percent of schools in Britain had abandoned the cane by 1980. STOPP’s biggest victory came in 1981, when the Lancashire Education Authority became the largest school district to abandon the cane.

Matters came to a head in the following year, when the European Court of Human Rights, an agency of the European Common Market, to which Britain belonged, ruled that pupils could not be punished physically if their parents objected. This decision sparked a political row. On one hand, the National Union of Teachers voted to work for abolition, and Labour-controlled local education authorities began to abolish. On the other hand, many members of the Conservative Party argued that caning was a grand British tradition and that it was wrong for a Common Market institution, the European Court of Human Rights, to interfere with an internal British matter. This, they said, was an example of how Britain had lost its sovereignty by joining the Common Market.

After three years of debate, the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher proposed a compromise. Its measure, the Education (Corporal Punishment) Bill, would have required schools to compile a register of pupils whose parents did not mind their being caned. The idea of dividing schoolchildren into “beatables” and “unbeatables” was called silly, and the House of Lords killed the bill. In the following year, 1986, another Education Bill had an amendment abolishing corporal punishment attached to it in the House of Lords. The House of Commons accepted the amendment by the narrow margin of a single vote (231 in favor, 230 against) on July 22, 1986. The law, which took effect in September, 1987, applied to children in state schools and to those whose fees in private schools were paid by the state, so children in the private sector who paid their own fees remained canable. However, in March, 1998, Parliament passed legislation banning corporal punishment in all British schools, public and private. Corporal punishment, British schools
Student strikes
School strike of 1911 (Great Britain)

Further Reading

  • Armytage, W. H. G. Four Hundred Years of English Education. 2d ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970. Clearly written survey of the development of elementary and secondary education in England since the 1560’s. Focuses on the effects of the Industrial Revolution, the movement toward universal education, and the growth of the state educational system in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, from the political point of view.
  • Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England. 1935. Reprint. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. Entertaining, well-written, and brilliantly conceived work remains indispensable for understanding the period from 1906 to 1914 in England. Weaves together the stories of how the power of the House of Lords was reduced, how the Tory Party supported rebellion in Northern Ireland, and how the labor and suffragist movements became increasingly militant. Full of vivid character sketches.
  • Ensor, R. C. K. England, 1870-1914. Vol. 14 in The Oxford History of England, edited by Sir George Clark. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. A standard reference source for the political, social, economic, and diplomatic history of the period. Includes bibliography and index.
  • Gardner, Phil. The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England: The People’s Education. Dover, N.H.: Croom Helm, 1984. Focusing on private-venture schools, draws a comprehensive picture of what the education of most English working-class children was like in the nineteenth century. Carries the story up through the end of the 1920’s.
  • Hurt, J. S. Elementary Schooling and the Working Classes, 1860-1918. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1979. Excellent account of what English elementary schools were like between the introduction of state-funded board schools and compulsory education in the 1870’s and the end of World War I.
  • Lawson, John, and Harold Silver. A Social History of Education in England. London: Methuen, 1973. Well-illustrated and fascinating survey of the history of English education in its social context from Anglo-Saxon times to the 1970’s. Connects the extent of educational provision with changes in population, the development of the class structure, the growth of literacy, and changes in the social roles of women and children.
  • Lowndes, G. A. N. The Silent Social Revolution: An Account of the Expansion of Public Education in England and Wales, 1895-1965. 2d ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1969. A useful survey of teachers, what they taught, and the schools they taught in.
  • Simon, Brian. Education and the Labour Movement, 1870-1920. London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965. Discusses the policies concerning education held by trade unions, radical political groupings, and the Labour Party. Written from a socialist perspective.

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