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Rising tide or storm in a columnist's teacup?

Are pupils naughtier now, or is society more intolerant of misbehaviour? Stephanie Northen investigates.

As comedian Ali G would say, it is all about "respect". Children as young as five are accused of having no respect for parents, teachers or each other. Eight-year-olds are being picked up for robbery in London. A six-year-old makes headlines for taking a knife into a Gloucester primary. The usual suspects are blamed: television, working mothers, poverty, computer games, a breakdown in society.

In September, the charity ChildLine was so shocked by responses to its survey of adults' opinions of young children's behaviour that it refused to release them. Teachers were facing a "rising tide" of primary pupil misbehaviour, warned David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Headteachers, last November.

But is the tide really rising?

Primary heads say they are coping with behaviour problems thanks to earlier identification of special needs, according to a survey last month by the National Foundation for Educational Research. The Department of Health estimates that 750,000 five to 15-year-olds - 5 per cent of the age group - have "significant conduct disorders". The mental health charity Young Minds says that one in 10 children cannot adjust to school life.

But the proportion permanently excluded is low - 0.12 per cent of pupils in 20001. Primary exclusions leapt by 19 per cent between 19990 and 20001, though they were still 7 per cent less than in 19967 (1,460 children compared to 1,573). Younger children now form a greater proportion of those excluded, although this could be due to a fall in secondary exclusions.

As far as the Office for Standards in Education is concerned, nursery and primary schools are generally meeting behaviour management standards. Chris Gittins, director of the Government's new behaviour improvement project, says: "Bad behaviour often gets talked up a great deal. Ofsted identifies only one in 50 primary schools as having poor behaviour."

Yet there is some research evidence to suggest that children are naughtier than they were. Back in 1995, Professor Michael Rutter, the eminent psychiatrist and paediatrician, identified increasing anti-social behaviour in children. The problem may be part of the price we pay for a society where people no longer "know their place", according to Dr Frances Gardner, an Oxford University psychologist.

Other commentators talk of stress: families struggling with long working hours, young children turned off school by tests, and teachers under pressure to raise standards.

Teacher unions supply plenty of anecdotal evidence. More primary teachers are asking for help, says Patrick Roach, assistant secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers.

He fears that the union only sees the tip of the iceberg: "Teachers dare not speak about the problem for fear of what others will think of their professional competence. They feel they should be able to cope with a small child."

Indiscipline is a major concern for new staff, he says, and teachers need better training in classroom control. The increasing isolation of schools, a legacy of local management, often turns finding the correct place for a difficult child into a headline-grabbing battle.

The union is working with the Government on a pound;66 million behaviour improvement project which focuses on 34 education authorities. But Mr Roach thinks it is not going deep enough: "We need to understand the problem and that means looking at the UK's record on children's rights, and at poverty and deprivation."

ne person who does that is Diane Maple, head of Chantry primary, in Luton, who this week won a national teaching award for leadership in a primary school. At times more than 70 per cent of children at her school, in an area of high unemployment and drug abuse, have come from single-parent families. Her pupils turn up "with an incredible amount of baggage," she says. Often they have lost a parent, they may be hungry and unwashed. Their behaviour can be extremely challenging, but Mrs Maple, who has been at Chantry since 1984, is not sure that it is any worse. "We used to get 12 to 15 windows broken every night. There is still a lot of vandalism, but we probably get that number of windows broken in a year now."

However, she has noticed two significant changes: a dwindling respect for teachers and a decline in infant language skills.

Others support her view. A music project run with the Children's Society and Chance for Children charities revealed that many three-year-olds did not know basic animal noises let alone nursery rhymes.

In a Literacy Trust survey earlier this year, 75 per cent of 121 heads said three-year-olds' language skills had deteriorated over the past five years. Children of this age are notoriously aggressive, but are starting to learn that talking, rather than hitting, is the way forward. Lack of language skills can lead to frustration and bad behaviour.

Frustration is at the root of much bad behaviour seen by Toby Quibell, a former teacher who leads Total Learning Challenge, a Newcastle charity using therapeutic skills to help pupils with behavioural problems. Teachers often find it liberating, he says, when they realise that badly behaved children are "trying to communicate in a garbled, mixed-up and backhand way".

Mr Quibell warns: "As awareness increases, so does the problem. The more you look the more you see." However, he adds: "Increased pressure in schools generates disaffection."

West Lothian education department has just completed a three-year project on primary children's "social competence". Engelina Davids, an educational psychologist who led the work, says: "Older teachers do say behaviour has deteriorated, but they are the first ones to admit that society has changed a lot.

"In the past children sat in rows and were seen and not heard; now they are in groups and are encouraged to be independent. It is more difficult for them to behave because they are expected to be more grown up."

An alternative explanation for the "rising tide" phenomenon comes from Professor Richard Tremble, chair of child development at Montreal University and an expert on the origins of youth violence. "Since Plato adults have always complained that children are worse than they were. Our societies are better places to live in than those of the 11th or 19th centuries, in part due to better education. As things get better we become less tolerant of misbehaviour."

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