The public perception of secondary education is worsening despite higher standards of teaching and ever-improving exam results, according to Department for Education and Skills research.
The survey of 3,370 adults, including 900 parents with children in state education, recorded generally positive views about nursery and primary. But an air of pessimism, based principally on concerns over pupil behaviour, pervaded attitudes to secondary schooling.
Respondents were asked to rate the current standard of the various levels of state education using a five-point scale ranging from very good to very poor.
Of those asked, 41 per cent said secondary education was "good" or "very good" and 18 per cent said it was "bad" or "very bad". In nursery, the corresponding scores were 59 per cent and 5 per cent; in primary they were 60 per cent and 9 per cent. In 2002, 43 per cent classed secondary education as good or very good, while 17 per cent said it was bad or very bad.
The majority of respondents (53 per cent) thought that secondary education was the level most in need of improvement (compared to 52 per cent in 2002 and 49 per cent in 2001).
Perhaps more worrying for the Government's policy-makers, expectations about the future of secondary schools were low. While 33 per cent of people expected primary schools to improve over the next decade, only 25 per cent expressed similar faith in secondary schools. This year, for the first time, more people thought that standards in secondary schools would get worse (29 per cent) rather than better.
The findings show that the Government's "successes", including the creation of what Stephen Twigg, education minister, referred to last week as "the best generation of teachers ever", have not been widely acknowledged.
Pam Walker, of research firm Taylor Nelson Sofres, which conducted the survey on behalf of the DfES, said recent improvements in secondary education appeared to have been noted by parents whose children are currently at secondary school, but not by the general public.
The survey found that parents with recent experience of secondary schools gave them higher ratings than the general population - with 18 per cent saying standards were "very good" and 46 per cent saying they were "good".
Ms Walker said: "If you actually have a child in a secondary school then you are more aware of changes that are happening.
"For many other adults, however, the perception may be based on secondary education as they or their children experienced it many years ago."
Chris Keates, acting general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Media reports about violence and discipline in schools focus on older children."
She also suggested that those surveyed may have been influenced by the sight of teenagers being rowdy on buses or lolling about in the street, rather than real experience of schools.
Ms Keates, who recently called for airport-style security checks in schools, added: "This negative general view is quite unfair, because most of the evidence points to rising standards."
A DfES spokesman said: "Things are improving. In the Government's first term, primary was a priority. In the second term, there is greater emphasis on secondary education.
"Key stage 3 results last year were the best ever and there is steady progress at GCSE each year."