New working paper: Corporal Punishment in Schools: Longitudinal Evidence from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam

24 Nov 2015

Date: 09 Nov 2015

Series: UNICEF Office of Research - Innocenti Discussion Paper 2015-02

Author: Maria Jose' Ogando Portela and Kirrily Pells

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Globally the use of corporal punishment in schools is increasingly prohibited in law, yet its use continues in many contexts, even where outlawed.  While some may argue that it is an effective and non-harmful means of instilling discipline, respect and obedience into children, others point to a series of detrimental effects, including poor academic performance, low class participation, early drop-out, and declining psychosocial well-being.  The use of corporal punishment and whether it has lasting impacts on children's development remains highly contested, especially given the dearth of data in this area.

This paper draws on longitudinal data from Ethiopia, India, Peru and Vietnam to examine the prevalence of corporal punishment and what this means for children in terms of what they most dislike about being at school.  It also uses regression analysis to explore predictors of corporal punishment, as well as its effects on children's cognitive development and psychosocial well-being.

Key findings

  • Corporal punishment is highly prevalent despite legal prohibition.  More than half of children aged 8 in Peru and Vietnam, three-quarters in Ethiopia and almost all children in India witnessed a teacher administering corporal punishment in the last week.
  • Violence in schools, including physical and verbal abuse by teachers and peers, is the foremost reason children give for disliking school.
  • Boys are significantly more likely to experience corporal punishment than girls.  However, girls are often at greater risk of other forms of humiliating treatment and sexual violence.
  • Children from poorer households are significantly more likely to be punished than their better-off peers.  
  • Corporal punishment affects children's learning levels: Corporal punishment negatively affects children's maths scores at age 8 negatively affects children's maths scores at age 12 in India, Peru and Vietnam.  The average negative effect is of similar size to the caregiver (usually mother) having about three to six years less education.

Corporal punishment not only violates children's fundamental rights to dignity and bodily integrity but can have long-lasting implications for their life-chances by reducing their engagement with schooling and capacity to learn.  Legislation, teacher training, addressing gender and social norms and greater international and national prioritisation to tackle violence affecting children should all play a part in building safe, supportive and enabling environments for all children to flourish.