Once upon a time, the corporal punishment of unruly or naughty children was often considered a part of growing up and even a significant element of the educational experience. Principals and delegated teachers had the ability to give ''cuts'' or ''strokes'' of the cane as an accepted disciplinary technique for all manner of student transgressions. Some may recall that feeling of trepidation as you waited, palm upward, for the cane or ruler to fall whilst trying to appear nonchalant to your watching classmates.
Despite the official position being that corporal punishment was unacceptable, even as far back as 1941, it wasn't until 1997 when the ACT government amended both the Education Act 1937 and the Schools Authority Act 1976, that corporal punishment was finally prohibited in all ACT schools by law.
One of the more fascinating records available through ArchivesACT is the territory's earliest Punishment Book from the Tuggeranong and Williamsdale School. Up until 1976, the education system in the territory was the responsibility of the NSW Department of Education. The department required teachers to keep records of each and every infliction of corporal punishment of students within a Punishment Book.
Each book made it clear that corporal punishment should only be given for extreme cases of discipline, but this early record indicates that even being caught talking within class was enough to earn one or more cuts of the cane. Far more serious offences, such as stealing, carried anywhere up to six cuts. One student was recorded in 1905 as receiving four cuts for "destroying the eggs of harmless and useful birds in the school playground".
Corporal punishment became a contentious educational issue within Canberra schools as early as the 1930s. In 1935, the ACT Advisory Council recommended to Mr Thomas Paterson, Minister for the Interior, that corporal punishment of all girls be abolished from Canberra schools and any corporal punishment of boys be exercised with restraint. This motion was in response to multiple allegations of severe punishment meted out to students of the Telopea Park Primary School by one of its teachers, Mr Clement Hill. Mr Thomas Shakespeare, member of the Advisory Council, indicated that "he had sworn affidavits supporting the contention that many canings administered by a master of Telopea Park Primary School had been unnecessarily cruel".
Given the serious and ongoing nature of these complaints, Mr Alek Hicks, assistant under-secretary and assistant director of education of NSW, decided to chair a public inquiry into the disciplinary action undertaken by Mr Hill. The inquiry was given plenty of attention by The Canberra Times which published a detailed description of the proceedings. Ultimately, the inquiry found that there were no charges whatsoever against the headmaster and that the "punishment inflicted in the school has been neither unduly severe nor contrary to the regulations governing corporal punishment".
After the inquiry, the ACT Advisory Council was active in monitoring the regulations around corporal punishment use in Canberra schools. However, at the council's June 1941 meeting, it was announced that no clarification had been provided by the NSW Department of Education regarding the edict against caning in government schools and corporal punishment continued for another 30 years. Each school continued to implement its own disciplinary measures.
In 1973, the territory separated from the NSW education system when the Whitlam government created the ACT Schools Authority. In 1979, a set of draft guidelines on discipline was issued which stated that corporal punishment for girls over the age of 12 years was to be prohibited, for all other students only the use of a light cane on the palm of the hands was acceptable. Parents could also make a request to the principal that their child not be caned.
During the 1980s, a downward trend developed in the overall use of corporal punishment within territory government schools. Statistics showed that in 1983 the number of incidents of corporal punishment in government schools was 372 across 29 schools; by 1986 the number had dropped to 81 incidents across 10 schools. Despite changes to the corporal punishment policies in government schools, private schools were still able to implement their own strategies. The ACT Schools Authority thought the steps taken to ban the practice within government schools would be enough for private schools to follow suit. But the two sectors were to remain at odds.
The ACT Teachers' Federation had been advocating the removal of corporal punishment in all schools from the early 1980s, considering it to be an outdated practice that was reminiscent of Australia's colonial past. After endorsing a policy in 1982 condemning its use, the federation continued to agitate the Federal Government to introduce legislation to abolish it in all schools.
While the non-government school sector continued to allow corporal punishment as part of their disciplinary approach after 1988, ACT Catholic schools banned the use in 1992. Five independent schools chose to retain corporal punishment within their policies after 1988 but by the 1997 abolition, only two were actually still administering it, in limited circumstances.
During 1996, Independent MLA Michael Moore championed the cause to prohibit corporal punishment from all ACT schools, and in August that year requested the Parliamentary Counsel draft legislation. Inspiration was drawn from the recently enacted NSW legislation and on December 3, 1996 Moore gave notice to the Legislative Assembly to present a Bill amending the Education Act 1937 and the Schools Authority Act 1976. On May 14, 1997 the proposed amendments passed the Legislative Assembly.
- From ArchivesACT
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