LONDON — The image of a 19th-century schoolmaster wielding a wooden paddle to discipline unruly pupils nowadays provokes a nostalgic smile rather than a wince.
But there remain those in Britain who favor use of corporal punishment as a deterrent for disobedience. In particular, the use of the cane to punish disruptive students - once routine in Britain - has resurfaced in passionate arguments amid evidence of rising indiscipline in schools.
Prime Minister John Major, an opponent of corporal punishment, is in open disagreement with his own education secretary, Gillian Shephard, who told the House of Commons Tuesday that it was "a useful deterrent."
But several Conservative MPs say they will press him to introduce contracts enabling parents to give schools authority to cane their children if they seriously misbehave.
Teaching union leaders say if Mr. Major moves to allow caning with parental permission, he will be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights and overturn the government's own policy on corporal punishment in schools.
In a series of rulings in the early 1980s, the European Court declared corporal punishment a form of cruelty. Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, decided in 1987 to ban it in state-funded schools. Before the ban, head teachers in some cases permitted senior pupils known as "prefects" to punish junior pupils by caning.
The opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are both opposed to corporal punishment in all its forms.
The split in the ruling Conservative Party on the issue of caning coincides with two high-profile cases of pupil indiscipline.
On Tuesday, the headmaster of Manton Junior School in Nottingham closed down the school "on health and safety grounds" when staff threatened to strike if a young boy was not expelled.
For some weeks the boy, who teachers described as "a menace," had been tutored one-on-one, but money for his lessons ran out. Refusing to send him to another school, his mother has vowed to take the matter to court.
Also on Tuesday, at Ridings School in West Yorkshire, the local government authority sent in a team of education officials in a bid to avert a strike by teachers who are demanding that about 60 disruptive students - 10 percent of the student body - be expelled. Earlier, the school's head teacher resigned, complaining that the conflict had exhausted her.
A Major rebuke
Major attempted to assert his authority on the issue after Mrs. Shephard said she favored corporal punishment, and appeared to indicate that a government measure reinstating it was likely, in a radio interview Tuesday.
Shephard was well into a speech later in the day to a school gathering when Major, using his mobile phone, placed a call to her. He asked her to leave the platform, and gave her what one delighted Labour member of Parliament later called "six of the best."
Downing Street officials later confirmed that the prime minister had reprimanded his education secretary.
But his action did not prevent several Conservative MPs issuing a demand that the government should bring back caning.
James Pawsey, chairman of the Conservative backbench education committee in the Commons, said he planned to introduce an amendment to the Education Bill currently before Parliament. "The cane in the corner of the head teacher's study is a powerful deterrent," he says.
Moderate and reasonable?
He drew support from Harry Greenaway, a senior Conservative member of the multipartisan Commons Education committee. "I don't mean beating boys until they bleed," Mr. Greenaway said. "I mean moderate and reasonable corporal punishment which is an indignity to the recipient."
In fact, more than a dozen schools still cane their pupils. They are able to do so because they are privately funded and fall outside the government ban.
Nicholas Debenham, headmaster of St James Boys' School in West London, says he used the cane six times in the past year for offenses such as lying, disobedience, or bullying other pupils. Some Christian fundamentalist schools retain corporal punishment, but the leading independent schools, such as Eton and Harrow, have stopped using it.
Any attempt by Britain to allow caning, even on the basis of contracts between schools and parents, would run into the teeth of the European Court - and also the United Nations, which recommends that it be prohibited in all schools worldwide.
Peter Newell, a leading campaigner against corporal punishment, says it is "hard to believe that an education minister could be giving support to the institutionalized caning of children in 1996."
"If it became a condition of entry to a school for a parent to accept corporal punishment, that certainly would breach the European Convention," he adds.
David Hart, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers, says reintroducing corporal punishment would "leave teachers vulnerable to action for damages under European law."
But Sir Rhodes Boyson, education minister when Margaret Thatcher was in office, believes the return of the cane to British schools is imperative.
"We now have something like 10 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds in open revolt, either inside our schools, or truanting in our cities. I think corporal punishment should be brought back," he says.