But the picture became more worrying in the 1990s when headlines told of a huge rise in the number of pupils being excluded for bad behaviour. Official figures showed around 3,000 permanent exclusions annually in the early 1990s; by 1995, the figure had nearly quadrupled.
The reasons for the sudden rise were unclear: increasingly bad behaviour was blamed on television, lax parental discipline, the ban on corporal punishment, increasing competition between schools because of open enrolment and local management of schools. Alternatively, it was argued, the explosion was an illusion, resulting from a change in the way the figures were collected.
With more than 11, 000 youngsters being turfed out on to the streets every year, many never to return to education, and rising concerns about violent and disruptive behaviour in and around schools, something clearly had to be done. The 1993 Education Act had already abolished indefinite exclusions and required local education authorities to make provision for excluded pupils.
The Elton report in 1989 had advocated a "whole-school" approach to discipline in which teachers, pupils and parents are all involved in developing a behaviour policy. Pupil behaviour had also become a key element in inspections by the Office for Standards in Education which highlighted any deficiencies in school policies.
By the mid-Nineties, headteachers had become used to a steady stream of circulars from the Department for Education and Employment, giving guidance on this increasingly high-profile area of school management.
To close this latest chapter in the story, late last year, as one of the final acts of a dying Conservative government, an Education Act was passed setting out, among other things, a range of measures to improve school discipline.
At the heart of the Education Act 1997, most of which will become effective later this year, is a requirement for governors to ensure schools promote good behaviour and discipline and to prepare a written statement of general principles. Headteachers must draw up specific measures - such as school rules - and publicise them among pupils, parents and staff. Local authorities must also say what they are doing to support and promote good behaviour.
The Act marks a breakthrough because it is the first attempt to initiate a national policy on school discipline, an area treated by the new Labour administration at least as seriously as by its predecessor. It also puts the problem of school discipline on to a new plane in terms of school management. By placing a duty on heads and governors to confront the issue,it encourages them to consider, from a management point of view, what may be the most effective way
of dealing with pupil behaviour.
The important thing, according to Bob Dingle, chair of the public and parliament ary committee at the Secondary Heads Association, credited with the idea of requiring schools to adopt formal discipline policies, is consistency. "It's essential to make sure you have a cohesive approach," he says, "otherwise you end up acting erratically. You send out confusing signals and pupils and staff don't know where they stand."
Many schools and local authorities already operate effective discipline policies. Kingston-upon-Hull city council, for example, recently launched a good behaviour scheme in its primary schools which it believes fits perfectly into the framework set up by the 1997 Act.
Under the Hull scheme, all its 80 primary schools have been sent 11-page questionnaires to evaluate their behaviour policies. This was not just a fact-finding exercise. It was part of a management strategy: to encourage teachers and governors to meet, scrutinise their own policies and thrash out ways of improving them, with the help of local authority advisers if necessary. A statement from the authority's code of practice headed each of the nine sections of the questionnaire. These statements and the way the questions were phrased suggested some of the directions staff discussion could take.
Question one, for example, starts with the declaration that "the governors should agree a written statement of the general principles for the behaviour policy, including a sense of right and wrong, respect for other people and an awareness of the need for honesty, tolerance and self-discipline". It asks when such a statement was agreed for the school, when it was last reviewed and which values it promotes.
Other questions determine the school rules, how good behaviour is rewarded, what sanctions are available, links with parents, teaching standards (does the teaching minimise the risk of bad behaviour?) and bullying.
The questionnaires are followed up by visits from local authority inspectors who work with staff on any areas found to be below par. This could involve extra training if necessary. The carrot at the end of the process is official accreditation as a school with clear and well-implemented behaviour policy.
Dez Allenby, head of Hull's special educational needs service, says that although standards of behaviour in the city's schools were generally good and many had been praised by OFSTED, there was a lack of consistency.
"There were so many bits of advice coming from different sources, sometimes conflicting, that it was difficult for heads and governors to know how to go about devising a policy," he says. "Most schools had policies, but they were a very mixed bag."
The impetus for a more formal approach arose from the legislation on special educational needs which placed a duty on local authorities to draw up policies for dealing with the issue. Many people began to realise the benefits of a more organised approach and began to ask whether it would work for school discipline.
Hull's emphasis is on a practical discipline policy which everyone understands. "There is a small number of children who, for a variety of reasons, don't respond and they may need extra help, " says Dr Allenby. "But most children will deliver if they know what is expected of them and if we are consistent about it."
This view is backed by Ian Turnbull, headteacher of the Francis Askew primary school in Hull, who helped devise the strategy. He took over a school that had been put on special measures by OFSTED two years ago, partly because of behaviour problems. Now it is off the critical list and discipline is not a problem. Mr Turnbull attributes the turnaround to involving parents, making sure lessons are stimulating and challenging, and adopting a clear behaviour policy.
"If you get your school right and work closely with the parents, and the children enjoy what they are doing and feel there's a purpose in being at school, you will have minimal disruption," he says. "Having a good behaviour policy sets out what the school thinks is important, and it's shared with the
parents and the pupils."
But not everyone is impressed by the section on discipline in the Education Act. Chris Watkins of London University's Institute of Education,a specialist in pupil behaviour, believes it could be counter-productive. "A written policy of the wrong sort could just make things worse," he says."If it's just about how to respond to bad behaviour, it puts the school into a reactive mode. All the evidence about how to get good behaviour suggests a pro-acative and pre-emptive approach is likely to be the most successful."
A further problem, warns Mr Watkins, is that the Act puts the overall responsibility for behaviour policy in the hands of the governors rather than the headteacher. "The day-to-day running of the school is the responsibility of the head and the teachers," he says. "The governors are there to set broad directions. But this Act asks them to do far more than that."
The point is also made by Gareth James, head of professional advice at the National Association of Head Teachers. The union has long been concerned about a big increase in cases of conflict between heads and governors, caused mainly by confusion over the division of responsibilities and exacerbated, says the NAHT, by the last government's policy of giving governors extra powers.
Mr James welcomes several aspects of the Act, but underlines the need to provide the resources needed to put behaviour policies into effect. This would include adequate training, for example, and making sure pupil referral units are properly equipped to provide high-quality learning opportunities.
"There are no simple answers," says Mr James. "Disruptive pupil behaviour is a massive problem that has built up over time and no single policy will deal with it. But if everyone pulls in the same direction and the resources are provided, we might start to get somewhere."
What the new education act demands on discipline
* The governing body of all local education authority and grant-maintained schools must ensure that polices are pursued "to promote good behaviour and discipline".
* They must publish a written statement of general principles on discipline for the school.
* The headteacher must decide on measures including, for example, school rules, to promote self-discipline, "proper regard for authority", good behaviour and respect for others. The head must act in accordance with the statement made by the governors.
* The headteacher must publish a written statement on the school's discipline policy and publicise it among pupils, parents and staff. The school's disciplinary measures must be reviewed every year.
* The governors may give the head guidance on any particular measures they think are important.
* Pupils may be detained after school on disciplinary grounds without parents' consent.
* Pupils can be excluded for up to 45 days a year. Previously, exclusions were limited to 15 days in any one term.
* Appeals committees must have regard to the interests of other pupils and staff at the school as well as of the excluded pupil in considering whether the pupil should be reinstated.
* Local authorities must publish a statement setting out the arrangements they make for pupils with behavioural difficulties, including the support and assistance they provide to schools to promote good discipline, and what provision they make for pupils who have been excluded.