4th February 2011 at 00:00
Bad behaviour must be rooted out. But don't look to schools for all the answers

Life is full of mysteries that are no less mysterious for being persistent. Take Chinese shredded duck. Why are there never enough pancakes for the available meat? Or straight men's fascination with lesbian sex. Why on earth do they suppose they might be invited to join in? Or bad behaviour. Why do politicians believe that the solution to it lies solely within schools?

Last week's Education Bill made great play of the Government's determination to crack down on bad behaviour (pages 20-21). Ministers believe that unruly pupils dissuade large numbers of qualified people from joining or remaining in the profession. Those suspicions are supported by several surveys and amplified by the calculated hysteria of the odd union general secretary. They resonate, too, with much of the electorate, who believe that youth is inherently suspect and that Cairo is less chaotic than the average classroom.

It is hard to deny that hundreds of teachers suffer at the hands of dreadful pupils. All, at some point, will have felt challenged by appalling behaviour and an unfortunate few will have come to acute mental and physical harm. Poor pupil behaviour is not an inconsequential problem and some of the Government's proposed solutions are welcome - particularly its suggestion that anonymity should be used to protect teachers from malicious allegations. On the other hand, its tinkering with exclusion panels amounts to diddly-squat and its plan to give teachers stop and search powers that the Stasi could only dream of is sure to keep lawyers in gainful employment for years (page 1).

But if discipline isn't an inconsequential issue, neither is it threatening to overwhelm the nation's schools. Violent attacks on teachers declined by 40 per cent in a decade, according to the British Crime Survey, while Ofsted says behaviour is poor in less than 2 per cent of schools. Even the Pisa survey, the Government's new sacred metric, found that our kids, if rather dim compared to the Finns and Koreans, are terribly well behaved by international standards. It is true that many who leave the profession cite poor behaviour as a reason for quitting. But is that because pupils are revolting or because some teachers' crowd-control skills are lacking? It is impossible to say.

Indiscipline is a persistent problem for some schools. But the Government's tough talk owes more to politics than evidence. Not only do the data suggest that poor behaviour isn't on the rise, the answer to what there is lies as much at home as it does in class. According to a 2007 Unicef report, British children's relationships with their families are among the worst in the developed world. If politicians want pupils to behave better, they should start lecturing parents about their inadequacies rather than focusing exclusively on schools. Unfortunately, "We promise to tackle the appalling state of Britain's parents" has certain drawbacks as a manifesto commitment.


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