TEACHERS' opinion of pupils' behaviour and of teaching assistants improved significantly last year, a new survey suggests.
The surprising finding emerges just weeks after chief inspector David Bell said most schools had an unteachable group of children and follows a series of research studies showing that badly-behaved pupils are one of the main reasons for young teachers leaving the profession.
But a government-commissioned survey of 1,500 teachers, parents and others, by Continental Research, reveals that teachers' view of behaviour changed markedly over the course of last year.
Researchers looked at teachers' attitudes at the beginning, middle and end of 2002. The results show that at the start of the year a third of teachers felt behaviour was worsening and a only a fifth thought it was improving.
But by the end, attitudes transformed: only a fifth thought behaviour was deteriorating and a third felt it was getting better.
The change took place as several cases of unruly students hit the headlines. Two teenagers at Glyn technology college, Surrey, were excluded for making death threats to a teacher and a union went to the High Court to uphold the right to refuse to teach violent pupils.
The survey's findings suggest that the Government's decision to open more pupil-referral units and tighten up exclusion rules to make it harder for unruly pupils to return to school may be bearing fruit.
Teachers' rights were strengthened last week when the law lords backed members of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers over their refusal to teach a teenage boy. The south London secondary pupil had physically threatened and verbally abused staff and children.
Eamonn O'Kane, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: "If the figures are true we would welcome them ... But I'm sceptical. Some of our members in the North-west are doing research on verbal abuse of teachers and it's not a particularly good picture at all."
The report, published by the Department for Education and Skills, also has good news for the Government: teachers' are warming to plans to cut workload by increasing the number of assistants.
Asked what staffing changes they would like to see, teachers and heads said cutting workload was their top priority. But, while at the start of the year the second item on their wishlist was "more teachers", by the end that had been narrowly overtaken by "more support staff". The report's authors say that suggests messages about the importance of support staff are being heard.
But a National Union of Teachers spokeswoman was unimpressed. "The DfES would have got a very different response if it had asked 'Should support staff be taking over as pretend teachers?'," she said.
Another survey carried out by the Audit Commission also suggests that teachers are feeling more positive.
The study of 7,340 schools in 117 English local education authorities found that heads believe council support has improved, although secondary heads were more critical of LEAs than their primary peers.
Generally, heads are happy with the help they receive with numeracy, literacy, school improvement and finance. They are more likely to be unhappy with authorities' special needs and property services.
Lords' ruling, 19, 30
"Stakeholder tracking study Waves 1-3" at www.dfes.gov.uk. Schools' views of LEAs: www.audit-commission.gov.uk