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Infants who play by their own rules

Officials are calling for an educational rescue code, a once-ailing school breathes again and evidence mounts that discipline problems begin young. Meanwhile, opinion is divided over how to tackle problem children.

Health visitors and headteachers painted a bleak picture this week of unruly children and parents who can't say "no".

Modern parents are so scared of being firm with their children that many toddlers were becoming "little dictators", health visitor Veronica Smyth said.

Infant and nursery school head, Jenny Evans, said children did not understand "no" and many of them wanted to make up their own rules, instead of respecting the school's.

The comments come as the Government prepares to publish figures which are understood to show an increase in primary school exclusions.

The data is expected to coincide with an Office for Standards in Education exclusion report which has also found a rise in the number of primary expulsions, although the numbers are small - 0.04 per cent of pupils permanently excluded. The figures will heighten fears that behavioural problems are emerging earlier.

Research by Dr Carol Hayden of Portsmouth University showed that at the start of the decade 378 primary pupils were excluded but in the last academic year this figure rose to 1,445.

At a doctor's surgery in Bishop's Stortford, the health visitors and nurse are convinced that bad behaviour is increasing.

Veronica Smyth, who works for the East Hertfordshire National Health Service Trust in the middle-class commuter town, catalogued problems which were becoming increasingly common in all families.

"We have found mothers daren't discipline children in any way. They think they are bad parents if they say 'no' to anything," she said. "If you give children too many choices, it makes them very confused and demanding.

"We ran a parenting course to help parents learn to play with their children. Because the cost of housing is so high, both parents have to go to work and then they miss out. When they get home, they have all the chores and they don't have the time to sit down and enjoy being with their children."

She speaks of a father, a social worker, who believes he is being a good parent by letting his "horrendously badly-behaved" son do anything he likes, the parents who carry on talking and ignoring a young child who interrupts a conversation and the "grazing society" which rarely sits down to a family meal.

Her colleague, Denise Briggs, is concerned about the violence of the Power Rangers and the parents afraid of being too strict with their children in case they call ChildLine. She describes how young children act out the children's TV programme by pretending the teacher is the "baddie" and they are Power Rangers, and tells the story of a girl who threatened to call ChildLine after she was told off.

In the same town, Jenny Evans, headteacher of The Havers School, said there was a marked increase in the number of children with speech and language difficulties. She blames too much television, video and technological gadgetry which prevents them from concentrating.

She also cited a mother who allowed her five-year-old to choose a school, the mother who agreed to let her daughter take a packed lunch to school instead of having a free school meal so she could sit next to her friend and the parent who objected to the school rule that all children have to drink water at lunchtime because her child didn't like water.

"Parents are letting their children make their own rules. It's the easy option to give in. It's hard saying 'no'," said Mrs Evans.

Mary Hart, headteacher of the Margaret McMillan Nursery in Islington, north London, which admits children from birth to five, has noticed over the past two years an increase in the number of children who need "tutored play". She uses this phrase for children do not know what to do when they go to the home corner, and for others who are physically timid.

An increasing number of children's behaviour was "chaotic and fragmented", she said, and children were less mature when they started nursery .

In Flint, Clwyd, an area which is blighted by high unemployment, Margaret Morgan, headteacher of Cornist Park County Primary School, said she had not seen an increase in the number of disturbed children but she had noticed that the depth of difficult pupils' problems was greater.

"What we find now in a small number of children is hostility and aggression, which the child has undoubtedly been allowed to display without being brought under control. One has to ask 'Do they live in violent households?'" she said.

Mrs Morgan, who is chair of the National Association of Head Teachers' early years working party, blamed the breakdown of family life.

"How can you focus on children's needs and give proper parenting if you don't know how you are going to pay the bills or feed your children?" she said.

The 15,000-strong Health Visitors Association says the transition from increasingly chaotic family life to schools with rules was too difficult for some children.

Mary Daly, an officer with the association and a former London health visitor, met a group of colleagues from South Wales who were concerned that children as old as four-and-a-half were unable to eat with a knife and fork.

She said these children had probably been fed by their parents for too long, and had been given too many mushy foods and take-aways which they could eat with their fingers.

Meanwhile, a recent survey of 1,000 London health visitors showed that 36 per cent could no longer help vulnerable families.

The nationwide closure of many day nurseries because of cost-cutting measures and the trend to redirect health visitors' work from helping families in need to simple medical tasks, such as immunisations, meant that health visitors were unable to carry out as much of their traditional, preventative work, said Mary Daly.

"The general impression is that behaviour is getting worse," she said. "There are increasingly fewer and fewer services to support families who are not very good at parenting. One of the biggest losses is the closure of the council-run day nursery. Health visitors have always worked very closely with them since the war.

"When we see strains in families and children beginning to suffer, we could in the past obtain a place in a council-run nursery."

She remembers an unstable family of eight on income support. The three oldest children went to day nurseries but no places could be found for the five youngest, who went on to cause great problems for their school.

If a mother had triplets 10 years ago, a health visitor could expect to find support for her.

"But I would have huge difficulties now to persuade the authorities to do that," she said.

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