To read some of our more lurid newspapers, the average state school would not seem out of place in a Mad Max film. Teachers have lost control, pupils run amok, foul-mouthed parents besiege the gates and lethal weapons are more common than conkers. It is difficult to have a reasonable discussion about pupil behaviour when disinformation is so widespread and when normally sane people start advocating solutions that would be thought a mite extreme by a galley-master in Ben-Hur.
Our schools are not descending into chaos. In fact, the proportion with serious behavioural problems is at an all-time low, having dropped from 8 per cent to 2 per cent in a decade. This does not mean that indiscipline is not an issue. On the contrary, poor behaviour is a serious concern of the profession and the Government thinks it sufficiently pressing to recommend a battery of measures (pages 28-29). Significantly, while 93 per cent of primaries have a good or excellent behaviour record, one in five secondaries does not. Progress across the country appears uneven. The implication is obvious - some schools are better at tackling indiscipline than others. But is the Government right to put the onus on them to sort it out?
Extreme bad behaviour of the kind that excites tabloid headline writers and the wilder fringes of the Tory party is mercifully rare. Clearly, severely troubled children who are a danger to others and themselves should not be in mainstream education. Many will have mental health problems. But as schools can wait for up to a year to have such pupils assessed, they can hardly be held responsible for the inevitably depressing consequences. Nor should schools carry the can for the failure of local government to provide provision for permanently excluded youngsters. It is a national disgrace that some local authorities, in contravention of their statutory duties, provide barely an hour's tuition a week for some of the most vulnerable children in the country.
The most consistent behavioural problem that teachers face is low-level classroom disruption: children being naughty in the traditional, time-honoured way rather than acting like extras from A Clockwork Orange. As Sir Alan Steer, the government's behaviour tsar, has pointed out and Ofsted has shown, there is a demonstrable connection between excellent teaching and good behaviour. Schools that teach well have better behaved pupils, regardless of their social background. Of course, that requires that pupils and their parents know what is expected and what behaviour will not be tolerated. But if some schools and teachers can perform superbly despite challenging circumstances, then the onus must be on the rest to up their game.
The majority of children deserve to be in a mainstream school - even the badly behaved ones. Teaching, after all, is about developing human potential. It is about making a difference for the persistently challenging as well as the naturally gifted. Schools that routinely use permanent exclusions as an unthinking substitute for effective behaviour policies are failing in their duty as educators. Naughty children are not someone else's problem. They belong in school.
Gerard Kelly, Editor; E: email@example.com.