It's no wonder they call it the silly season

The issue of school violence requires a more sophisticated reading of the facts, says Gwynedd Lloyd.

"EPIDEMIC of violence hits classrooms" (Scotland on Sunday, May 12). We are used to these headlines - discipline collapses at least annually. Teachers are quoted who hark back to previous golden ages. While their views should be listened to, we do need to investigate such claims carefully and responsibly.

Indiscipline or the level of violence in school is notoriously difficult to measure. Tolerance levels of schools and individual teachers vary hugely and many terms like "behavioural difficulty" have no objective criteria. Varying rates of exclusion say much about the ethos of the school, the views of teachers and systems of discipline and support. Research in the mid-1990s by Munn and Johnstone found that Scottish teachers were most concerned about low-level disruptiveness; very small numbers reported violence towards staff. Both primary and secondary teachers, however, did see a need for more places in special units for troubled children.

Since that survey, considerable financial investment has been made in different initiatives, such as alternatives to exclusion, Better Behaviour, Better Learning, the looked-after children programme and new community schools. Many more schools are developing schemes not only for supporting pupils in class but for alternative curricula and support units.

So why might things, despite all this, be getting worse? Reasons offered for this decline vary. At the moment the guilty party is the Scottish Executive and its policies of inclusion. Yet it is not the case that the children who used to be in special schools are now all in the mainstream. Figures used by Scotland on Sunday probably came from the most recent school census data, collected in 2000, the same year as the passing of the Act the article suggests has caused the problems.

These figures show that 8,300 children were in special schools in Scotland. The way that the data is collected means that this is probably a considerable underestimate. Large numbers of pupils remain on the roll of their mainstream school, even when they may never enter it. It is difficult to make complete sense of the figures - school census and exclusion figures clearly involve some interpretation, not to say looseness in their collection.

Records of needs vary in their use considerably between councils, reflecting policy, the views of individual schools and educational psychologists, and parent pressure. The use of the record for social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) is particularly inconsistent.

However, it is clear that the overall proportion of the school population educated in special provision has remained relatively stable. Some groups of pupils, for example those with sensory impairment and other physical disabilities, are more likely now to be educated in the mainstream but this is not the case for pupils identified with SEBD, despite policies to reduce exclusion and promote inclusion.

The Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act and the recent guidance on mainstreaming do clearly allow for the continued placement of some pupils in alternative settings. So if there is a growing problem, it is not because everyone is now included in the mainstream.

There are many reasons. Recent figures from the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration show a large increase in referrals on the grounds of lack of parental care. The report suggests that this reflects changing attitudes to the reporting of domestic violence but also the impact of drug abuse by parents. This may account for some of the concerns in primary schools about quite young children with serious problems. More children are being diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and prescribed medication, though the rates of diagnosis vary considerably.

The rise may also reflect greater pressures to improve attainment. Equally, difficulties in secondary schools may reflect a range of factors within and outwith school: family difficulties, abuse, racism, bullying, violence, poverty. School factors include ethos, curriculum, pastoral care, teacher stress and pressures to meet targets.

If schools are providing a greater level of service for perhaps more children with difficulties, then they need long-term resourcing. Many schools are already doing this really well: sensationalist and irresponsible headlines about violence and crisis do them no service.

Gwynedd Lloyd is a senior lecturer in the department of educational studies at Edinburgh University.

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