DO French pupils misbehave? Do ferries cross the Channel? The common holiday experience of watching quiet French children chomping through their salad at motorway cafes may lead British observers to believe that all pupils across the Channel are saintly. But concern about poor behaviour in schools seems to be felt just as strongly in France as in Britain.
The French call it violence - a term that describes not just physical attacks but also rudeness and disruption in schools. It first came to the fore as a political issue in the early 1990s, when teachers demonstrated in protest and demanded more staff in schools. And it was much debated during this year's presidential and general elections, when concern about law and order was a key factor behind the rise of the Right. That concern has now produced a stiff new law - called the loi Perben after justice minister Dominique Perben - which will permit the locking up of children as young as 13 for persistent offending. It will also permit courts to send parents or pupils to prison for up to six months for insulting or threatening a teacher.
France's basic "action plan against violence in schools" was launched by education minister Claude Allegre in 1997. This emphasises a co-ordinated approach to tackling disaffection and disruption, involving six key ministries - Education, the Interior, Justice, Defence (the gendarmeries), Culture, Youth and Sport - and the strengthening of contacts between police and schools.
The plan is much more far-reaching than anything yet attempted in England and Wales. The first phase, in 10 pilot areas, gave extra staff and resources to more than 400 secondary schools and 1,800 primaries. The second extends this to 20 areas, covering more than 500 secondaries and 2,400 primaries.
As in Britain, the worst problems of school violence are concentrated in rundown areas in and around big cities. Most trouble occurs among older lower-secondary pupils aged 14 to 16, though teachers report that it is spreading to younger children. Disruptive violent behaviour is not unknown at primary school.
In 1998-99, 240,000 violent incidents - including threats and bad behaviour - were recorded in French secondary schools. Of these, 2.6 per cent were classified as serious and 4 per cent of pupils were involved. But 40 per cent of pupils felt there was a lot of violence in their school, which suggests the problem is more serious than the figures suggest.
So what do French schools do about these incidents? Prevention is officially the aim, with each school's administrative council responsible for discipline. Punishments for minor infringements, which may be given on the spot by teachers or other staff, could include a record of the misdemeanour written in a pupil's mark book, an oral or written apology from the pupil, extra homework, detention or exclusion from specific lessons which must then be spent in a supervised study room.
Serious offences, such as attacks on people or property, must be referred to the head or the disciplinary committee, which includes staff, parents and pupils. Penalties range in severity from official warnings to temporary (a month maximum) or permanent exclusion.
Technically, no pupil in France is ever permanently excluded (see story, right). Removal of a pupil from one school normally means immediate transfer to another or to a special unit and so is not strictly classified as exclusion.
But the pupil's removal and transfer may nonetheless lead to effective exclusion. There may be no one to monitor whether a child continues to attend the new school - and schools may understandably show little interest in getting violent or difficult pupils back. So the excluded child becomes the truant, kicking around the town centre.
The hard core of disaffected pupils can attend classes-relais, similar to our pupil-referral units. Run by education authorities in partnership with legal authorities, they provide a breathing space where pupils, taught in small groups, can become remotivated. In the coming year, 100 new classes-relais will be opened in addition to the present 250, which will cater for 3,500 pupils this year. The pupil and their family must agree to the referral.
Now a more hardline approach to the most serious cases will follow the recent election victory of President Jacques Chirac and the advent of a new, right-wing government. Disruptive and violent pupils could face incarceration following fulfilment of his election promise to reintroduce detention centres for young delinquents.
The last centre ferme in France closed more than 20 years ago because of the violence inside. In 1987, it was forbidden to keep under-16s in custody.
But that rule has been overturned by a new law, passed last month, that provides for juvenile detention centres for 13 to 16-year-olds who are suspected of having repeatedly committed offences. The centres would be for six to 10 children, who would follow a strongly educational programme with the aim of reintegration. The plans have been condemned by judges, lawyers and teachers.
But French MPs made the law even tougher by introducing an amendment to extend measures originally designed to protect the police. Pupils and parents who insult or threaten teachers could now face six months in prison and a Euro 7,500 fine.
ONCE elected in 1997, Labour set out to cut the growing number of children permanently excluded from school by a third by 2002. In England, numbers fell from 12,700 in 1996-97 to 8,300 in 1999-2000, but targets were then relaxed and numbers have since risen, with a growing proportion excluded from primaries. New guidance says schools can permanently exclude for bullying or one-off violent incidents.
Within English schools there are 1,050 learning support units which help to tackle the behaviour of pupils at risk of exclusion. An extra pound;66 million to tackle behaviour in high-crime areas will fund more. More than 360 off-site pupil-referral units have been set up to meet the Government's pledge of full-time education for all permanently excluded pupils from this month. Thirty-four local education authorities in high-crime areas must provide full-time education for all pupils from the first day of any exclusion from January next year.
In Wales, exclusion numbers are also rising but there are no targets to provide full-time education for excluded pupils.
FOLLOWING research in Spain, Italy, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Sweden, Carl Parsons of Canterbury Christ Church University College says:
"School exclusion by means of education law is almost unheard of in mainland Europe. General criminal law and health and safety legislation are enough to cover the worst problems. To move a child will usually require the agreement of child and parent and usually a negotiated transfer is arranged.
"In these countries, education is provided both as a right and a duty for a state to provide. It is recognised that some at-risk young people are in greater need of education and the state accepts the greater expenditure this will incur."
In Denmark, Professor Parsons observed a troublesome pupil being moved to a (very pleasant) observation class in the same school. A strategy was then agreed with the parents to induce the child to behave in an acceptable way. Options for action included more support in the mainstream class, a move to a special class in the school or transfer to a special school.