Britain remains one of only four countries in Europe where smacking children is legal — as long as it meets an ambiguous definition of “reasonable punishment.” Despite this, British movements against corporal punishment have flexed impressive muscle in recent decades: they have seen it off in the courts (1948), in the navy (1957), in prisons (1967), in state schools (1987), and, more recently, in private schools (2003). Indeed, the only institution where it remains legal is the one which stirs the most controversy — the private home.
Anthropologist Geoffry Gorer noted in his survey of “English Character” in the early 1950s that the British had a peculiar proclivity for the “pleasures of severity” when it came to punishing their children. As its use was gradually prohibited across Europe over the course of the century, Britain remained defiant. Attempts to end the practice were once castigated and dismissed as a symptom of revolutionary fervour, most notably in the period after the Soviet Union abolished it in schools in 1917. But the corporal punishment debate was actually at its most revolutionary in Britain during the late 1960s and early 1970s, and it wasn’t adults leading the fight.
The most dramatic moment came on May 17, 1972, when ten thousand school children went on strike. Central London came to a standstill as police struggled to contain crowds marching through the streets with banners reading “No to the Cane.” Unwilling to let the children occupy Trafalgar Square as they had intended, the officers dispersed the children across London in large groups, arresting many of the organizers in the process.
Photographs of the demonstration made it into the tabloids the next day. The Daily Mail chirped that “parent power” had won the day, reporting that retribution had been meted out “on the backsides of the Pupil Power strikers.”
Kids on the March
The children had absented themselves from school in reply to a call from the Schools Action Union (SAU): a children-led movement that existed between 1968 and 1974, and made significant gains in shifting the corporal punishment debate in Britain.
Schools Action Union did not arise from a single moment; rather, it was the culmination of a broad and varied range of protests at home and abroad. One of these, in March 1968, saw hundreds of pupils from the Myles Platting Secondary Modern school in Manchester stage a school strike in response to the excessive use of the tawse, a pronged leather strap. Soon after, students from the strike formed the Manchester Union of Secondary Students. This was joined shortly thereafter by the Swansea Union of Progressive Students, the Bristol Sixth Form Alliance, and the Cardiff Union of Secondary Schools.
Tricia Jaffe, a founding member of the SAU, had been in Paris during the period of civil unrest in May 1968 and formed friendships with members of Comites d’Action Lyceens. When back in England, she was able to draw upon the successes and failures of her comrades and became part of the Free School’s Campaign (FSC) in October 1968. She organised the FSC conference in January 1969, where these movements came together for the first time.
The conference gained much publicity, with extensive television coverage from ITV’s World in Action, and a large police presence in response to a planned invasion by members of the National Front. Although the conference had been envisaged as an effort to forge unity between movements, in the end it further divided them.
Michael Duane — a headmaster who had gained much publicity for losing his position after refusing to cane his pupils — made an impassioned speech to the students, telling them: “You have to decide whether you want an education with a little politics, or politics with a little education.”
The FSC chose the former path, deciding to be identified as an apolitical association that eschewed centralised organisation. Those who diverged from this line, choosing instead “politics with a bit of education” formed a separate group under the banner of the Schools Action Union. The SAU’s founding demands were:
- Control of the schools by students and staff
- Freedom of speech and assembly
- The outlawing of corporal punishment
- The abolition of school uniforms
- Coeducational comprehensive schools
- More pay for teachers
The SAU wanted radical change, and unlike the FSC, chose to organise alongside other overtly political movements. They wanted to change teachers’ minds, and understood that it was necessary to gain their solidarity to succeed: “Far from being against our teachers, we want and need the support of most of them against their authoritarian and disciplinarian colleagues and superiors.”
Within months the SAU had organised nationally. When teachers went out on strike, as they did on November 20, 1969, London SAU printed and distributed its own leaflets on the dispute and brought a contingent to the demonstration. When relationships had been built with teachers, they were invited to one of the SAU’s “teach-in socials with films,” where, for example, on July 4, 1969, the attendees watched films on the May revolution, the Chicago riots, and the Hornsey Arts College occupation.
The SAU planned from the offset to be able to raise enough funds to rent an office. They published two magazines, Vanguard and Rebel, each sold for a three pence fortnightly subscription fee. They also held film nights and “Guerrilla Theatre” performances, and eventually raised enough money to obtain a space in North Gower Street, next to Agitprop — the “radical information agency” — and the newly established Gay News. Having a place of their own meant that the students could write, organise, and discuss issues with a degree of autonomy that had previously been impossible.
Sharing space with a radical printer like Agitprop, which advertised itself as a “communications service for the Left, working to build up distribution channels for pamphlets, news and contacts,” meant that the SAU children came into contact with a broad variety of left-wing groupings.
It also greatly enhanced their communication possibilities. Whereas the first issue of Vanguard had been reproduced from a school copybook, the SAU’s growing relationship with Agitprop gave them access to knowledge about the preparation of artwork from films, and the ability to litho print future editions. It allowed them to use images from popular culture in a new and engaging way, alongside their own political opinions, letters, and criticisms.
By the summer of 1969, the SAU had twenty-seven branches across the country. It had also held three national conferences — two in Birmingham and one in London — and conducted numerous strikes across the country. Although SAU had emerged from secondary modern and comprehensive school protests, those children who were regularly paying subs to the union at that time came predominantly from an older and more middle-class demographic, including many from grammar schools.
But this trend shifted dramatically as the developing politics of Children’s Rights honed in on the school as a problem of class. When Edward Heath promised in 1969 to “end six long years of hard labour” and to “cut down on wild-cat strikes by updating the law on industrial relations,” the SAU gained a significant majority of working-class members. When Heath defied the pollsters on June 19, 1970 and won the general election with a majority of thirty, the youth organisation entered arguably its most successful phase.
In 1972, as unemployment exceeded a million for the first time since the 1930s and two states of emergencies followed the miners and dockers strikes, the SAU became a regular feature of both local and national news. The idea that the SAU was “controlled” by hidden adult activists was a consistent point of media interest.
Liza Dresner, who joined the SAU following an article in the Guardian detailing the expulsion of five SAU members from Dulwich school, became the movement’s spokesperson. When she was interviewed by ITN in her parents’ house in the wake of the SAU’s London demonstration on May 17, 1972, she was asked, “isn’t it true that there are grown-ups, not school children, in the organisation who are influencing it all?”, to which Liza responded:
No, absolutely not. I mean, we accept advice from anybody, people who respect us we respect. There’s no person pulling strings, paying us. I wish someone was, we haven’t got any money! We’re just working, we’re school students who are fighting for revolutionary change.
Similarly, when Dresner was invited onto David Frost’s primetime TV show, she was asked again if “adults were really running the show,” and if “Russia was providing money to fund” the SAU.
The actor Colin Welland, who had played a teacher in the film Kes (1969), and who was also on Frost’s show, later wrote the SAU a check that paid a large chunk of their rent. Liza’s ability to negotiate the very adult and particularly masculine realm of television provided a new level of exposure. Her negotiation of this adult arena proved to be particularly fruitful as it ensured that subsequent demonstrations numbered not in the hundreds, but the thousands during this volatile period of social unrest.
In the wake of a targeted SAU campaign throughout 1972, the Inner London Education Authority defied pressure from the teaching unions and announced that by 1974, corporal punishment would be banned in all inner-London primary schools.
When Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” hit the number one spot in July of 1972, twenty or more SAU kids were given tickets to hear the track played live on Top of the Pops following a demonstration. The episode was so riotous that it drew the attention of Mary Whitehouse, the socially conservative founder of the National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association — who complained to the BBC of:
the gravest concern over the publicity which has been given to Alice Cooper’s record ‘School’s Out’. For weeks now ‘Top of the Pops’ has given gratuitous publicity to a record which can only be described as anti-law and order. Because of this, millions of young people are now imbibing a philosophy of violence and anarchy. This is surely utterly irresponsible in a social climate which grows ever more violent.
Whitehouse wasn’t alone in her fear that the children of the SAU were getting out of control. The SAU understood the impact of direct action, especially if that effort resulted in media coverage and an opportunity to have their say on air.
When the SAU could garner scores of children to the streets, such as in March 1969 and May 1972, they were met with a significant, coordinated police presence, one which often picked out key SAU activists at points of tension, and were never afraid to flex their muscles in front of the press.
A High Price
The children who skipped school and joined the SAU’s marches often did so at great personal cost. They were subjected to constant public scrutiny via an increasingly hostile press. The SAU regularly held campaigns that called for the reinstatement of excluded students, suspended or expelled for “truancy.” Newspaper scrutiny and oral testimony suggest that children were also suffering domestic consequences too.
The SAU’s fluctuating membership was undoubtedly shaped by the external public and private pressures on the children who took up the cause, and the likelihood of repercussions meant that resistance came at a cost. Retribution often took the form of the very action that the children were protesting — corporal punishment.
Another outward pressure that the SAU faced, of infiltration, has only recently been possible to prove. Although the children were unable to substantiate their suspicions, they were public about their belief that the government was monitoring their cause. Recently opened files show that they were right.
Edward Heath’s government employed the security services to infiltrate, monitor, and to uncover adult supporters of the SAU. Documents reveal a paranoid climate in No. 10 during the Heath government, which began covert surveillance in late 1970 and continued it throughout his term as prime minister.
Heath was presented with a dossier of information about the SAU shortly after the demonstration on May 17, having requested detailed information about the event the day before. His concern was that “when a similar development occurred in France in 1968, it caused a good many problems and proved very difficult to get under control.”
Heath asked for “special attention at particular schools, to try to isolate the ringleaders of the militancy.” Of particular concern was the prospect that working-class children were becoming radicalised. The documents show that Margaret Thatcher, then education secretary, seemed reassured by a report from a serviceman who had infiltrated an SAU meeting and suggested that “the leaders spoke with Cockney accents and spoke illogically. It seemed there were a number of middle-class kids who were dressing badly to look working class.”
One of the groups close to the SAU, and exposed in the dossier, was the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which had been established in Britain in the wake of the Stonewall Rebellion in America. Initially meeting through the Agitprop hub, the SAU often frequented the “GLF house” (above the Agitprop bookshop) in Muswell Hill. The GLF partly funded the SAU’s costs to reproduce its journals at Agitprop, which, by 1971, was regularly being raided by the police.
The surveillance files of the SAU ultimately failed to pinpoint the desired adult puppet master: it really was an organisation of kids fighting the system. Adults were undeniably influential in challenging the SAU’s at times unbalanced codes of practice. But children’s own objectives, and their subjective understanding of and reasonings for them, remained the overwhelming driver of the union. In the end, the only identifiable body that clearly and actively infiltrated the SAU was Edward Heath’s government.
The SAU’s connections to the broader counterculture, uncovered by Heath, and the measures taken to suppress them during the many obscenity trials of the decade began to split the movement into opposing directions. It regularly distributed the controversial Little Red Schoolbook, which was censored under the Obscene Publications Act, and a member of the SAU wrote in the now-infamous “SchoolKids” edition of Oz magazine, which was also subject to an obscenity trial in 1971.
Although the SAU fizzled out in 1974, they had forced the corporal punishment issue firmly into public debates on children’s rights. The ban on corporal punishment in London’s primary schools is perhaps their most recognisable achievement. Yet they also played a significant role in ensuring that corporal punishment was on the political agenda, particularly of the Left. Labour’s Dennis Canavan introduced a bill to abolish it in 1976, and although it was defeated, it signalled that the Left was now in line with the youth movements on the issue. It also heralded a decisive shift in the trade unions, which had long opposed abolition.
Labour conference finally adopted an abolitionist stance in 1980, and it was Labour’s votes that secured the total abolition of corporal punishment in state schools in 1986. The vote was won by a majority of just one: thirteen conservative members of parliament had been held up in traffic for the royal wedding the following day and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher — an avowed flogger — had also missed the vote as she was entertaining Nancy Reagan before the celebrations.
More than thirty years later, Scotland’s announcement that it will entirely ban corporal punishment is a welcome one. Research shows that where corporal punishment has been outlawed, there is a significant increase in identification of children at risk of physical abuse and a far lower rate of mortality associated with child abuse.
Banning corporal punishment across Britain may well take time. The debate has already raged for well over a century. But if we are to learn anything from the inspirational and courageous efforts of the activists of the SAU, it is that children have a voice and that they need to be heard in this debate. It remains to be seen if Britain is willing to listen.