An accurate picture of school life at Rugby School in the 19th Century is given by Thomas Hughes' famous book Tom Brown's School Days. Hughes was a contemporary of the famous headmaster of Rugby School Dr.Thomas Arnold who did much to restore discipline, order and learning to the Public Schools of the day and introduced the system of school prefects. The book tells of formal floggings by both masters and prefects as well as of illicit 'roastings' of junior offenders by holding them close to the fire until blistered, a punishment which Arnold did much to stamp out.
In general, from Dr.Arnold's time until the 1970's the cane was the standard punishment for offenders in the State as well as in the Public Schools. However, in the State Schools, canings were usually mild and carried out by the headmaster or his deputy. By contrast, in the Public Schools, the masters concerned themselves only with teaching and the maintenance of discipline was a matter for senior boys designated as Monitors and/or Prefects. and selected both from the upper-sixth form and the captains of sport. They were allowed to administer punishments, including canings. Other forms of punishment in Public Schools were 'lines' often in the form of copying several pages of the Greek or Latin classics and Punishment Drill, usually 20 minutes of strenuous exercise on the parade ground or in the gymnasium at 5.30 am sharp! In Scotland, the tawse, a wide strip of thick leather cut into three of four strips and attached to a leather handle, was/is used in place of the cane.
Discipline in the Public Schools centred round a complex tradition of privileges and restrictions. New boys for example might have to keep all three buttons on their jacket fastened, 2nd year boys could be allowed one button undone and 3rd year boys two. Likewise, only sixth formers and those with sporting 'caps' or 'colours' would be permitted to walk round the College Green clockwise, all other boys having to move in an anti-clockwise direction.
The number of strokes administered at a caning depended, in most Public Schools, on the culprit's seniority rather than his offence. Thus a first year pupil would merit 4 strokes, a second-year 6 strokes and a third-year boy 8 strokes. An offending sixth-former might even merit ten! It would not be unusual, therefore, for a boy to receive 8 strokes for having his blazer buttons undone in public. Such canings were usually carried out in the presence of some or all of the other prefects which certainly encouraged a stoical response from the victim! For details of canings at The King's School in Canterbury during the early 1940s click here
Although in more recent times girls have been exempt from the school cane, some of the more famous Girls' Public School caned, or more usually whipped or birched offending girls. Convert Schools continued the practice until recent times.
Because of the increasing violence and disobedience in schools, particularly in State Secondary schools, there is considerable pressure from the general public for the re-introduction of caning in schools. This pressure is strongly resisted by theoretical educationalists who were largely responsible for the abolition of CP in the first place, and by Government who see problems which could arise from an appeal to the European Court of Human Rights who have already expressed opinions on the matter. To conform to European law, corporal punishemnt of all kinds is now illegal under any circumstances in the UK but pressure groups are active to overturn this ruling.
Two other considerations arise: firstly the almost universal distribution of coeducation; do we cane the girls and if not what do we do with them ? And is it fair to differentiate. Secondly the problem of who should do the caning. School teachers, already the objects of pupil violence fear retaliation out side the school from pupils whom they might have caned.
There seems no obvious solution to the first problem except to leave things as they were in past years or find alternative punishment for the girls. The second problem is easily solved by the prefectorial system used in the Public Schools. Let a pupil committee decide the punishment and carry out the sentence; their decision will be respected by their colleagues.