The Curious Death of Corporal Punishment in British Schools, 1996


Corporal punishment in British schools wasn’t regarded as ‘assault’ until the late 1970s when political and social momentum built up against it. Two Scottish parents supported their children’s refusal to be beaten with a tawse. The case finally reached the European Court of Human Rights in 1982. They ruled for the parents and this judgement accelerated moves towards abolition, which happened in 1986 in England and Wales. Interestingly, that legislation permitted independent schools to use corporal punishment, which they continued to do until 1996. Some Christian schools felt they should use corporal punishment as it was endorsed by God. The subsequent court case ruled against them and corporal punishment was abolished in 1998.


“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” Proverbs 23:13

In Britain, teachers are in loco parentis. British parents had the right to physically chastise their children and therefore so did teachers. The corporal punishment envisaged wasn’t vicious,

…in this case we are concerned with carefully controlled, mild and loving discipline administered in the context of a clear moral code.”**

The judgement said that, The legislation is intended to protect children against the distress, pain and other harmful effects this infliction of physical violence may cause. That corporal punishment may have these harmful effects is self-evident.”***

Lord Walker added,

Countless thousands have suffered cruel deaths because at different periods during the last two thousand years parts of the Christian Church thought that the Bible not merely permitted but enjoined them to torture and kill apostates, heretics and witches.”****

The judgement was unanimous and they put to one side the religious views of the parents because in a democratic state the child’s interests came first. The possibility that a child could be harmed by corporal punishment meant that legislation was entirely proper and religious beliefs were superseded. Baroness Hale commented, “There can be no doubt that the ban on corporal punishment in schools pursues the legitimate aim of protecting the rights and freedoms of children.”v She goes on to meet the Christian schools objections, “Even if it could be shown that a particular act of corporal punishment was in the interests of the individual child, it is clear that a universal or blanket ban may be justified to protect a vulnerable class…”vi


The death throes of corporal punishment ended in 1998. Christian schools felt sincere religious beliefs should be recognised by exemption from national legislation. This was rejected by the highest British court.

Bending over backwards to meet parental rights the Secretary of State, “…contended that section 548 did not interfere materially with the claimant parents’ manifestation of their beliefs. He submitted that section 548 left open to the parents several adequate, alternative courses of action: the parents could attend school on request and themselves administer the corporal punishment to the child; or the parents could administer the desired corporal punishment when the child comes home after school; or, if the need for immediate punishment is part of the claimants’ beliefs, they could educate their children at home.”vii This was rejected outright as being entirely impracticable by Lord Nicholls.

The death throes took sixteen years after the original 1982 decision of the European Court of Human Rights. And thus ended institutional brutality in British schools.


* House of Lords – Regina v. Secretary of State for Education and Employment and others (Respondents) ex parte Williamson (Appellant) and others ( para 74 Baroness Hale

** ibid para 77

*** ibid Lord Nicholls para 49

**** ibid Lord Walker para 56. See para 57 for a development of the principal point being made.

***** ibid para 80

vi loc.cit.

vii ibid para 40. This was rejected in para 41 by Lord Nicholls


For the anti-corporal punishment campaign see STOPP press! | Newsam News (

For the European Court of Human Rights judgement see BBC ON THIS DAY | 25 | 1982: Parents can stop school beatings

For the judgement on corporal punishment in Christian school see House of Lords – Regina v. Secretary of State for Education and Employment and others (Respondents) ex parte Williamson (Appellant) and others (

For the tawse see Tawse – Wikipedia

For in loco parentis see What ‘In Loco Parentis’ Means to You (

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