The Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (Pirls), which surveyed children and teachers in 41 countries, found 90 per cent of headteachers in England felt there was a "high" level of safety in schools, compared with only 37 per cent of pupils.
John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said pupils feel more unsafe than they really are. "The risk-averse culture that has developed in this country in recent years has widened the definition of bullying and encouraged an atmosphere in which young people don't feel safe," he said.
England ranked 27th for pupil perception of school safety in the survey, which asked children both how safe they felt and if they had seen or experienced stealing, bullying or injury in the last month. This placed them below countries including Scotland, the United States and Russia.
Its low ranking was influenced by a high number of pupils reporting violent incidents in schools: 59 per cent said someone in their class had been injured in the last month, ranking England second in the world for school violence, after Spain. The contrast between headteachers' and pupils' perceptions of school safety is evident - though less severe - in other countries. An average of 60 per cent of heads internationally said their schools were very safe, compared with only 47 per cent of pupils.
Teenagers said the disparity suggested headteachers across the world might be out of touch with classroom life.
"Headteachers don't know how students feel because they're out of the classroom," said Laura Davies, 17, of the English Secondary Students' Association. "If they were in lessons they could see what was going on."
But Mr Dunford said: "It's entirely wrong to make a sweeping accusation against heads. Teachers report issues to senior staff and heads do what they can. Wise heads will take up this perception and discuss it with pupils but it's very difficult for schools to counteract the prevailing risk-averse culture."