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Attitudes and responses of education administrators

The senior administrators of State education in Queensland endeavoured to ensure that the regulations are observed. They did not condone the indiscriminate use of corporal punishment in schools and favoured more positive methods of discipline.

J.G. Anderson, Under Secretary of the Department of Public Instruction from 1878 to 1904, maintained views which he had expressed earlier as the senior inspector with the Board of General Education. In 1869 he stated:

There is no school, I believe, which is conducted wholly without recourse to corporal punishment; but in many it is rare, and discipline is maintained by other means. The most wholesome discipline is maintained by gentleness and consideration; while the dignity of authority is asserted by rare but rigorous punishment, if necessary18.

Three years later he maintained:

The young teachers find by experience that they can control their pupils and maintain order without frequent recourse to corporal punishment, and that the tone of the school rises in direct proportion as the frequency of such discipline diminishes.

Anderson believed that stress on drill would help to reduce the need for corporal punishment19.

As Under Secretary of the Department of Public Instruction, he advised individual teachers that the Department looked upon corporal punishment with extreme disfavour even while its use was permitted as a concession to weak and inexperienced teachers20, and that the best class of teachers either dispensed with corporal punishment or employed it only on rare and extreme cases21.

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The Director of Education in 1927, B.J. McKenna, claimed that corporal punishment was seldom resorted to because better teaching methods and a closer study of the principles of psychology had made it less necessary. McKenna also claimed that while complaints were still received from parents about corporal punishment, they were more rare22. Five years later, McKenna stated that corporal punishment was used only as a last resort23. The Director of Education in 1938, L.D Edwards, said that he was opposed to the cane as it was against the spirit of the time24.

In 1953, the Director-General, H.G. Watkin, believed that physical punishment and harsh repressive measures were rarely used and that few would regret the passing of the bad old days25. In 1975, the Director-General, A. Guymer said that corporal punishment was less necessary because student teachers spend more time in training, with a greater emphasis on psychological aspects to secure the cooperation of pupils26.

Some of the Ministers in charge of the Department of Education had publicly expressed opinions on the topic. None of these have been enthusiastic about the use of corporal punishment. In 1917 the Honourable Mr H. Hardacre M.L.A. had visions of its complete abolition27. Four years later, the Honourable Mr H. Huxham M.L.A. said that he was personally opposed to the use of the cane and hoped it could be abolished. He stated that the Department would deal severely with those teachers who broke the regulations28. In 1959 the Honourable Mr J. Pizzey M.L.A. claimed that children were never caned for slow learning and that the Department would conduct inquiries into any complaints about teachers breaking the regulations29.

In 1978 the Federal Education Minister, Senator the Honourable J.L. Carrick, commented in the Senate that he would recommend to the States that they ban corporal punishment. The State Minister for Education, the Honourable Mr V. Bird M.L.A. stated in a press release, 1 November 1978, that corporal punishment was not used frequently in schools and was used only when absolutely necessary. It was still necessary to retain it, however, as a deterrent to ensure the effectiveness of teachers and the education system. The Honourable Mr V. Bird M.L.A. also stated that education was a province of the State and that the Federal Government should not interfere in this sphere30.

It is interesting to note that, on at least two occasions where a spokesperson for the Department have claimed in the press that the regulations were adhered to, many parents have promptly replied, via the press, giving many instances of teachers ignoring the regulations31.

From 1876 to 1938 reports of the district inspectors were included in the Annual Reports of the Secretary for Public Instruction. In their reports, the inspectors made frequent references to corporal punishment. One interesting feature of these comments is that most of the inspectors were making the same claim throughout this period - that harsh corporal punishment was a thing of the past and that in their district corporal punishment was now rarely used. Much of the optimism of the latter claim was based on a perusal of the punishment registers. While they were inspecting schools, however, inspectors were sharp observers. Furthermore, they were required to investigate complaints by parents. Consequently, some of them pointed out what they regarded as isolated cases of violations of the regulations, e.g. failure to enter every case of corporal punishment being used surreptitiously. Evidence suggests that such violations were far from isolated.

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Moreover, the punishment registers themselves revealed instances of violations of regulations. In 1902 an inspector pointed out that excessive punishment - 6, 8 and ten cuts - was handed out for such trifling offences as bad exercises, inattention and idling. The contents of various registers illustrate the comment by one inspector in 1887:

It is impossible to scan this book in any detail without being struck by the unlimited faith some teachers place in the power of the rod as a panacea for all the evils incidental to school life. Lateness, talking, laughing, inattention, lying, swearing, dropping a slate etc. all entail the inevitable rod.

The registers of the schools at Ormiston and Carney Creek from 1900 to 1933, for example include such entries as refusal to learn poetry, whistling in school in teacher's absence, drawing horses instead of watching in arithmetic, poor spelling, sulking, playing beetles and insulting a black man32.

Like Director-Generals and Ministers, inspectors also concentrated on a positive approach to discipline and officially regarded the excessive use of corporal punishment as a sign of inefficient teaching and inadequate administration. Instead they stressed self-government, self-discipline and self-control.

Many reasons for the use of corporal punishment was suggested by inspectors. While inexperienced, inefficient teachers were more inclined to over-use corporal punishment, the size of classes and the nature of accommodation influenced the degree to which it was used. Another reason given was the lack of co-operation from the home. Parents who used severe corporal punishment and expected teachers to do the same made it difficult for teachers to control their children without resorting to the same method of control. Other parents made no effort to control their children at all, believing this was the responsibility of the teacher. Furthermore, it was claimed there were pupils from the best of homes in the best conducted schools who needed this form of punishment33.

In relation to the application of the regulations by school administrators, some general comments may be made. These comments are based on an examination of the Departmental daily letter books of the nineteenth century and the perusal of four or five hundred complaints by parents about corporal punishment (from the 1870s to the 1960s), located within about one hundred and fifty school files34 which have been used in the course of writing school histories over the last five years.

Complaints from parents were usually of two main types. The first was the use of excessive or irregular punishment, especially punishment which had left marks. The other major type of complaint was related to the punishment of children with some physical or emotional weaknesses, for example the child 'under the doctor' for asthma or the 'nervous and highly strung child'.

The Department always investigated complaints made about corporal punishment (excluding those sent by anonymous writers) by referring the complaint to a teacher and/or a head teacher for comment, or to an inspector for a special investigation.

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These investigations appear to have been thorough and impartial. Sometimes evidence was taken and accepted from reliable witnesses among the school children. Once having ascertained what they believed to be the truth, inspectors tried to apply commonsense. If they found that a teacher had broken the regulations, they recommended a degree of punishment which was appropriate to the seriousness of the violation of the regulation. This ranged through a caution, reprimand, severe reprimand, transfer, and suggested resignation, to dismissal. When teachers were reported for practices for which they had already been reprimanded, the Department often imposed a more severe form of punishment.

The limitations imposed upon corporal punishment by the regulations of the Department far exceeded those limitations imposed by law. In actual practice, the regulations provided a safeguard for pupils and, since the Department had a wide range of responses, it was not unnecessarily Draconian in action taken against teachers.

It would seem that such tight regulations were necessary when the actions of a small minority of teachers are examined. The Department had to apply the complete range of punishment to such actions as caning for trivial offences, caning girls, caning for irregular attendance, using a riding whip, binding and gagging a pupil, hitting a pupil with fists, striking on the ears, making children kneel for long periods, putting children in a press, caning children without any provocation and beating children severely with part of a broom stick.

It must be pointed out, however, that the worst of these examples have been drawn from the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. In those days very low salaries were paid to provisional school teachers. Consequently, the male teachers who taught in provisional schools were sometimes men of low academic attainment with no professional training. Many of these made an effort and succeeded in their new calling. Some, however, made little effort to cope with the tasks of teaching and relied heavily on corporal punishment to cover their incompetence35. With the passage of time, the violations of the corporal punishment regulations was increasingly of a less flagrant type.

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Last reviewed
10 January 2013
Last updated
10 January 2013