The average public playground of nine-year-olds - I live opposite to one - or the average street group of 15-year-olds can be foul-mouthed, aggressive and disturbing with no adult in sight. These will be the same children in different circumstances.
However, there is a second line of inquiry that often piles up behind the first question. This invites me to accept that not only are children worse behaved these days but that schools are to blame. The follow on from here will be familiar to many.
If I ever had time to give a proper reply I would want to talk about the two systems of school and society and how the school system can only ever be a reflection of the greater societal one. Long before universal education went beyond 12 years of age, T S Eliot recognised in 1929 that "schools can transmit only a part of our culture and they can transmit this effectively only if the outside influences, not only of family and environment but of work and play, of newsprint and spectacles, entertainment and sport, are in harmony with them" - this before television and our whole communications revolution.
I would not be the first to argue that until this issue of harmony is confronted and explored, children's behaviour in school can never fully be addressed. Political simplicities may win votes but they do not get to grips with basic issues. We have to look at our social mores and expectations to see how they fit with what we expect from schools. Schools cannot operate easily without the borrowed authority of the wider society and that authority sometimes appears to be in short supply.
Still looking at the wider social system, the early behaviour of a child is first of all shaped and then filled out by a range of influences such as community ethos, particular family values and relationships, parent-child relationships and all their early years experience. I am talking here of pre-school children whose impaired powers of self-regulation may impact directly on the primary teacher before the all-encompassing media and "youth culture" influences really kick in.
However, playgrounds, parenting styles or the Internet apart, there exists this second system, the school itself. Here, given the child as formed by the bigger system, are a range of important variables which can soften or exacerbate. Much research has looked at school ethos, headteacher effectiveness, peer group influences and classroom dynamics. I would want to add education authority philosophy and practice. The pre-disposing behaviour of a child within the education sstem will always be modified, for better or for worse, by the influences of these and other elements in the system. So where does that leave us?
At a school and classroom level the stress-inducing, inefficiency-producing, time-consuming issue of "problem" behaviour is a daily concern for many teachers and perhaps the one issue above all that saps the vitality and confidence of the education system as a whole - this in spite of my observation that most classes in most schools are outwardly problem free.
Twenty or so years ago the rubric was that if you got the curriculum right all else would slot into place. These days it seems to be early literacy and computers. I still don't see it somehow. What I do see are two ecological systems, the one separate from, but ultimately determined by, the other. In ecological systems all things are connected and in this construction I am inclined to see ways ahead. What you do to one thing you do to all others.
Within the larger societal system each of the elements are susceptible to change. Parenting skills can be, and are, taught. Parental relationship issues can be, and need to be, helped with. Local communities can be invigorated and early years experiences enriched. Many other elements - housing, employment, drug abuse, crime levels - all have their part to play.
Within the education system, headteacher and teacher effectiveness, particularly in relation to pupil behaviour and group dynamics, have to be continually addressed through training and dissemination of best practice, and in this I would include training for special needs and classroom assistants. I am thinking here of issues such as attention and hyperactivity problems, dyslexia, moderate learning difficulties, autistic spectrum disorders, communication disorders and others, all of which may predispose a child to problematic behaviour.
In the bigger picture there has to be some sort of rematching of school with society. This may take a while. Below this much can be and is being done - a breaking of the circle, a new perspective, a changing of the frame, but no input should stand alone. Working for children with behavioural difficulties is demanding and exhausting. Those involved, professionals and parents alike, need to feel empowered and valued.
Financial resources in addition to those already in place are required if emotional and behavioural problems are to be taken as seriously as learning difficulties. There is much good practice and much dedication, but I believe we have not yet got close enough to a serious and honest approach to these troubling issues.
Bill Badger was formerly head of a middle school and deputy principal of a residential school for pupils with emotional and behaviour difficulties. He is now an educational psychologist in East Renfrewshire. Schools aren't to blame for problem children but they must be prepared to break new ground, says Bill Badger