My prescription for juvenile delinquency


Every time I pick up a newspaper nowadays I read accounts of yet more mindless hooliganism pepetrated by teenagers and young men upon law-abiding members of the public. It cannot be denied that such anti-social behaviour has become much more frequent in the past few decades, coinciding with a total abdication of responsibility by the powers that be.

For example, it was all well and good to abolish caning in our schools, but did the social reformers stop to consider what to put in place of this tried and tested sanction? The answer is a resounding NO! Since the cane was banned our schools have gone from bad to worse with the only real sanctions being suspension and expulsion. This is tantamount to rewarding bad behaviour with a holiday. And what do the suspended or expelled pupils get up to outside of school? Vandalism, thieving, drinking, drugtaking - you name it.

I speak as a member of the older generation who left school at the age of 14. Unlike many 16-year-old school-leavers today I was well versed in reading, writing and arithmetic: still the essential tools of life in a modern industrial society. I was taught by overworked teachers in large classes but everybody emerged from their schooling both literate and numerate. This was because discipline was strictly enforced, leaving teachers free to teach and boys to learn.

In those days you soon learnt not to overstep the mark. For example, in my junior school (ages 7 to 11) all the teachers were equipped with a short whippy cane. If you were disobedient or lazy you had to hold out your hand palm upwards for two or three cuts of that thin rattan. It stung like nobody's business and even the toughest boys were brought to the edge of tears by a few well-directed strokes. The stinging continued for some time afterwards, and the offender could be observed pressing his burning palm (or palms in more serious cases) against the cold metal framework of his desk in an attempt to gain some relief from the smarting. This may all sound somewhat brutal to modern ears, but the fact was that after your first 'hander' you lived in mortal fear of a repetition of the punishment. The cane acted as a very effective deterrent against further misbehaviour or laziness and the very fact of its presence in the classroom meant - paradoxically - that it was not brought into use that often.

When I progressed to the senior school much the same regime was in force, although the cane was now applied to the miscreant's backside rather than his hand. The senior school cane was a lot bigger as well and wrongdoers received a minimum of three strokes, with six of the best being laid on for more serious offences. The ordinary teachers did not wield the cane - that was a job for the headmaster and his deputy. I received the full six of the best on two occasions during my time at the school and even after all these years I can recall both incidents vividly.

On the first occasion I got involved in a playground fight with another boy. The two of us were separated by a teacher who took our names and at the end of school that day we found ourselves up before the headmaster. The cane stung like hell and I remember how my bottom was still tingling as I walked home. Once again I must stress that the deterrent effect of corporal punishment kept me (and most of my classmates) on the straight and narrow. No boy came back willingly for another dose!

My second memorable caning came in my last term at the school when I was reported for smoking in the street. The school had recently instituted a clampdown on smoking, and despite the fact that I was well away from the school premises I was sentenced to receive six of the best. The punishment was delivered by the deputy headmaster who was reputed to be a harder caner than his boss. I discovered this to be true and after those six almighty stingers I was hopping about like a whirling dervish, clutching my burning behind and vowing never to touch cigarettes again.

What remains in my memory is how painful a caning felt. Even the most gung ho of boys feared the cane and the majority of us dreaded it. We had a great incentive to behave ourselves and attend to our schoolwork, and discipline and respect for authority was the norm. Compare that with the equivalent school (mine was situated in a poor area of an inner city) today. So what is my prescription for today's delinquent boys, based on my experience of schooldays and my experiences of life since.

First of all, bring back corporal punishment in our schools. The vast majority of parents would approve and back the teachers to the hilt. Discipline instilled into children from an early age at school would surely help parents manage their kids when they were at home. The corporal punishment permitted would be moderate but effective, with the cane being the preferred instrument. A swishy cane can impart a very unpleasant sting, but applied correctly across the palm of the hand or the clothed trouser seat it is very unlikely to injure. Once corporal punishment was reinstituted, the deterrent effect would mean that its use would gradually diminish, with the cane becoming the 'nuclear option' in most schools.

Of course, there will always be those tearaway boys who are totally unresponsive to normal methods of discipline and chastisement. The present government is busy building expensive juvenile 'secure units' for such miscreants which seems to me to be an entirely desparate measure. Such places are universities of crime, where youngsters merely learn better ways to steal cars. Imprisonment should surely be a last resort.

My own recommendation is that the juvenile delinquent should first of all be sentenced to a dose of judicial corporal punishment. Assuming that the more moderate school canings have proved to be ineffective, a certain gravitas would need to be associated with a judical caning. The youth under sentence would be taken to a police station and, following a period in the cells to contemplate his fate, would receive eight of the best trousers down with a hefty cane. I am certain that the total dread of a repetition of such a painful and humiliating punishment would act as a very powerful deterrent against further delinquent behaviour.

As a last resort, when even judicial canings have proved ineffective, rather than building secure units the government should consider reinstituting the prewar system of naval training ships for juvenile delinquents. This would take the tearaways off the streets and instil in them self-discipline, smartness in bearing (through the wearing of uniform) and a respect for others. The main sanction in these establishments would be the tried and trusted naval birch. The old movie 'Lord Jeff' shows how such institutions (as often as not land-based with access to nearby sailing ships) helped in the reform of the most incorrigible of delinquents.

Having said all that, I am certain that my ideas will be considered ridiculously antedileuvian in our progressive modern world and that the present hopeless system will continue - a system which fails both the offenders and their victims

Harry R, Manchester

Should modern delinquents be sent to training ships? (A still from 'Lord Jeff')