Corporal punishment in schools – illegal but still in use

UCT psychology professor Cathy Ward has told News24 that according to research, about 50% of children in South Africa’s schools have been hit by a teacher.

“Many parents also use corporal punishment to try to discipline kids, but that communicates a message that violence is okay and this is how we solve problems,” Ward said.

Corporal punishment was banned in South African schools in 1996. Violence in schools hasn’t actually increased, but it remains at a very high level.

Part of the problem is that teachers lack training in other means of instilling discipline, as well as in identifying and curbing violent behaviour before it escalates.

While the Department of Education has rolled out the National School Safety Framework, it requires schools to identity resources within their surrounding communities to help the kids and train the teachers.

“The primary responsibility of teachers is to teach children. Then suddenly there is a lot of pressure on them to be social workers and psychologists and teachers aren’t trained to do that.

“So schools have been given a framework, but not necessarily the resources,”  Ward said.

My Take

This plays into a few themes of what I see as having gone wrong in South Africa since 1994.

The first is that we have very progressive laws, but lack enforcement. My view is that a law that is unenforced, especially in a school environment, breeds contempt for the law as a whole.

If you want lawful behaviour, then you need to behave lawfully otherwise people just see a hypocrite.

The second is that research has repeatedly shown that corporal punishment is bad, that it leads to worse outcomes in terms of academic performance, violent behaviour, discipline in general – and yet it is still the go-to response we have to any problem.

The City of Johannesburg knocks down 80 houses, so the community burn down three more. We learn from an early age that violence is how you get results, and so is it any surprise that this is what we turn to?

And to say that banning corporal punishment caused our children to go wild in schools – ignores the fact that about half of those children have had teachers who hit them regardless of the ban, showing that violence gets results, and ignoring the law is okay if you are in a position to get away with it.

But there is another theme here that strikes me – the reliance on schools turning to community resources. Where have we heard that before?

From the ANC when discussing the economy. It is one of the ANC’s favoured cliches to say that the private sector “hasn’t come to the party”.

And that is what identifying community resources is all about – using the private sector to do the things that should be being done by government.

The problem with this is fundamental, if the community had the resources to solve issues like school violence and just train the teachers itself, those issues would already be solved. If private industry could “come to the party” and fix the South African economy without government’s involvement, then we wouldn’t have a problem with the economy.

We form governments for a reason. We form them in order organise the things that we cannot achieve via the “private sector” – things which require a degree of collective action that goes beyond the individual or the business level.

And part of that is the sort of large scale social change that addresses core issues in our society. We cannot continue to have a government that doesn’t do the basic work of government, that makes pronouncements and then doesn’t follow through on them.

We have a government of managers who sit in meetings, not managers who go out onto the shop floor and make sure the work is being done. That needs to change.


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