Gloats one of the young hoods in West Side Story: "Gee Officer Krupke, we're depraved on account of we're deprived." That was in the 1960s. Then, as now, there were lots of "bad" kids in the New York school system (as elsewhere in the United States and beyond) and their badness was put down to poverty, dodgy parenting and low expectations - all the negative factors that we have come to associate with disruptive behaviour.
Today, some politicians and education supremos go one step further. They see in the children of this country a reflection of the moral decline of our society. An alarming number, they argue, are uncontrollable, unruly, unrepentent of their many sins. They have no sense of right and wrong and respond to neither reason nor threats. Godlessness has led to amorality, and amorality to children that teachers find impossible to teach, or even to control.
For some schools, exclusions have become the most common means of dealing with these children. A national survey of local education authorities, carried out by Christchurch College, Canterbury for the Department for Education and Employment, showed a threefold rise in exclusions between the academic years 19912 and 19934, when 10,500 pupils were permanently excluded. These numbers are clearly worrying, even though the extent of the escalation may be misleading; LEAs have only been obliged to report exclusion figures to the Department since the 1993 Education Act. Equally worrying is the recent revelation that many of the boys arrested during the Metropolitan Police's anti-mugging operation had been excluded from school.
There is no clear reason for the high level of exclusions. David Moore, who was an Anglican priest in Brixton before becoming a schools inspector, does not put children's disruptive behaviour down to godlessness, as some do. Rather, he believes, many of these children simply cannot get a foothold in the curriculum.
"A large number of pupils ending up in difficulties - over 50 per cent - have literacy problems. Many in this group are up to three years behind their chronological age in their reading, and find the routines they are asked to perform beyond their capacity," says Moore, a Her Majesty's Inspector who specialises in behaviour. He points to a pattern in which children entering primary school "may not be well-parented," which puts the onus on schools to concentrate on basic socialisation skills in the first few years.
This slows down the acquisition of reading skills, which in turn can result in children being two or three years behind when they transfer to secondary school. Confronted with a curriculum that is above their heads, they engage in low-level disruption out of boredom and frustration. And it is low-level disruption, not major one-off offences, that leads to the majority of exclusions.
Looking closely at schools' practices, he has found that some give fixed term exclusions to the same pupils over and again as a "time out" strategy, to avoid excluding them permanently. Others, with lower tolerance levels, go for permanent exclusions more readily. Wherever you find exclusions, you are looking at a distinctive school culture where, says David Moore, "you can have two identical schools, but one is excluding ten pupils while the second is putting out 100."
While the recently sacked headteacher of Earl Marshal School in Sheffield, Chris Searle, instituted a "no permanent exclusion" policy which came to be seen by many as unworkable, many schools have in place behaviour policies and strategies that incorporate exclusions, whether fixed term, permanent or both. Peter Jenkins of Christ School, in Richmond, Surrey, has made a speciality of discipline issues during his 22 years as a headteacher, and the number of children excluded since he came to the school this time last year has fallen dramatically. He has permanently excluded four, whereas his predecessors would temporarily exclude 50 to 60 in one year.
Jenkins doesn't use temporary exclusions: "I've always thought that they were a way of giving kids short holidays and driving shopkeepers mad. I believe that the way of doing things is to hold onto these kids as much as possible. " He does this by putting names of at-risk children on potential exclusion lists and, most tellingly, he asks parents to bring their misbehaving children in early in the morning for meetings. That, he finds, is what worries kids most.
But neither of these measures would work without serious work with staff on building relationships with the pupils and addressing achievement through school development plans, team-building, equal opportunities and the student council. "Exclusion and discipline are to do with the mindset of teachers, " he insists.
The Office for Standards in Education is currently undertaking a study of secondary schools' strategies of identifying children in difficulties and finding ways to avoid excluding them. The study is focused on two schools in each of the 15 LEAs. A report is scheduled for publication next autumn.
Official initiatives to deal with difficult children have run into trouble. Many pupil referral units for excluded children have inadequate resourcing, planning, accommodation and teaching, according to a recent OFSTED report.
The latest scheme, announced last September by Gillian Shepherd, the Secretary of State for Education, will bring troubleshooting behaviour support teams into schools to help teachers deal with problematic behaviour. But the three main teaching unions say it will not deal with the staffing and resourcing problems that underly many problems.
Nearly seven years after the Elton Committee Report on violence and indiscipline in schools, the education world is still casting around for answers At that time, teachers felt they lacked access to group management and discipline skills.
How much further down the road are we now? And how much closer are we to the approach, voiced by David Moore, that "low level disaffection is the responsiblity of all teachers, not just the specialist pastoral staff. If it is only seen as a specialist responsibility to deal with disruptive children, other teachers can easily abdicate their responsibility."