Discipline and punishment in UK schools, early to mid-20th century

School discipline in England and Scotland

Discipline in English and Scottish schools was surprisingly different. The first part of this page summarise the aspects of English school discipline mentioned elsewhere on this website, but the remainder of the page couldn't be more different. In Scotland, at the time, corporal punishment in schools was rife, even on very young children and girls. It was applied with the dreaded tawse, pronounced to rhyme with paws. Read on and you will be glad and relieved that things have now changed.


By the webmaster based firsthand contributions from people who experienced punishment at school

English schools

In the mid-20th century, discipline and punishment in English schools was relatively benign. Various emails have told me that boys were occasionally caned, but punishment was generally limited to keeping children back after school, known as 'detentions', and giving them what were called 'lines'. 'Lines' meant requiring the culprit to write out a number of times, "I must not ....[whatever the misdemeanour was]". The number of times depended on the teacher's view of the scale of the misdemeanour. In my experience of school between 1944 and 1957, I was never required to write lines and only once was part of a class detention. Essentially punishment was replaced by encouragement and interesting lessons, and as far as I can gather this was fairly widespread at the time - unless of course you know different! If so please contact me. I never saw any form of corporal punishment.

Psychological punishments

From things that my father said, punishment in the early part of the 20th century was largely psychological, designed to embarrass rather than hurt physically, although the cane was still used from time to time on boys, never girls. A once-common punishment was to require the child to wear a pointed hat with 'DUNCE' written in large letters. This was called a 'dunce's hat', dunce's cap' or just 'dunce hat' or 'dunce cap', a dunce being 'a person who is slow at learning: a stupid person'. Another such punishment was to require the naughty child to stand in the corner facing inwards. Something similar was used in my grammar school in the 1950s for really quite mature girls. They were called onto the stage where the headmistress was giving morning assembly. I understand that in the 1940s in England there was something similar in some schools on Friday afternoons with the addition that each 'naughty' child was caned in front of everyone.

Punishments for 'your own good'

There seems to have been the view in the past that punishments improved by deterring bad or unwanted behaviour. The next contribution is an example which shows that the punishment didn't work.

A left-hander forced to write with the right hand

I was born left-handed, but everyone was supposed to write with their right hand. To discourage me from using my left hand, I was constantly being hit on the back of my left hand until it swelled up and bled. One time they even tied my left hand behind me so I could not use it, even to hold the paper or slate steady enough to write on it.

It was how things were at the time, and eventually I did manage to work with my right hand - with difficulty and not a great deal of success. Looking back, school was more like a mad house of indoctrination than a place of learning.

Stan Clark

More extreme punishments

More extreme punishments must have taken place in some schools. For examples, see punishments in orphanages and punishments in the more distant past as described in old novels such as those by Charles Dickens.

Scottish schools

In Scottish schools, discipline and punishment was more severe than in England.

I started at a primary school in Falkirk in Scotland in 1954 when I was 4 years and 3 months old.

The tawse

I vividly remember 'the tawse' which was an instrument used to terrify and subdue us at primary schools in Scotland. It was a piece of leather about 28 inches long and 3 inches wide, which was kept folded in half so that it had a permanent crease in the middle. I always understood that the fold increased the speed with which it struck, similar to a whiplash. It was dark brown and solid all the way down. The business end was slightly rounded while the handle end was narrower.

Scottish schoolroom tawse

How the tawse was used on children

The child (as young as 6) was made to stand in front of, and to one side of the teacher with his/her hand held out at shoulder height. If the teacher was short or the child tall, the child had to hold their arm out at about waist height. The teacher would then swing the tawse down from their shoulder with all their strength to strike the child on the palm of the hand. The fold in the middle of the tawse was essential as it increased the force of the strike. Woe betide any child who flinched or dropped their hand, as this would mean the blow was repeated until the teacher was satisfied that they had managed to get a good hit. This brutal punishment was used to ensure that we lived in fear of them and did not make their lives difficult, as there were about 45 children in each class that they needed to control. It was highly effective, for the vast majority of children, including me, were totally cowed.

Some of the tougher boys in my class received this punishment regularly several times a week and boasted about it. However it usually brought tears to their eyes which they did their best to hide from us.

I understood the use of the tawse was widespread in Scotland at that time. Some teachers would only use it on boys, but all the teachers at my school (except the infant teacher) used it routinely, sometimes on a daily basis. The majority of teachers (almost all single women) definitely hated the children, and I think in some way they also feared us.

A girl's personal experience of the tawse

The only occasion on which I received this tawse punishment was at age 9. My mother had taken me to an optician during the morning, where I had had drops put in my eyes to dilate the pupils. On my return to the class that afternoon I could barely see, but it was the day appointed for a hand writing test and I was not allowed to be excused. I had to try my best to write tidily using a metal nibbed pen dipped into blue ink in an inkwell. Not surprisingly my page was a mess, and I was duly belted with the tawse. It burned like the devil, and the bruise lasted about 10 days.

When I told my mother about this punishment she was upset and wanted to complain to the teacher about it. However she could not summon up the courage, which was fortunate as I am sure the teacher (a formidable young woman in her twenties who wore tailored tweed suits and lace up brogues) would have taken it out on me. Mothers rarely went near the school in those days, and as for fathers - never!

Bullying and punishment

There may have been an 'up' side to this harsh treatment in that there was a total lack of bullying amongst the children themselves. I think this was because we were so united in our fear of the teachers. It was definitely an "us and them" situation and we stuck together. When I hear about the bullying that appears to go on these days, I wonder if there was something to be said for the old way.

Meryl Donaldson

A boy's personal experience of the tawse

In my time as a boy in Scotland the 1940s, the end of the tawse that did the hitting was split into two so that there were two whiplashes for each strike. For what was regarded as more extreme bad behaviour, the boy was required to bend over so that the tawse could be applied to his buttocks.

Bill Hogg

If you can add anything to this page or provide a photo, I would be pleased if you would contact me.

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