Despite a rash of high-profile cases of violence involving pupils, increasing numbers of parents believe school discipline is improving. Michael Shaw reports on the latest TES survey of parents in England and Wales.
Reports of knife attacks by pupils and assaults on teachers might give the impression that disruptive behaviour in schools is spiralling out of control.
Yet more parents are convinced that school discipline is improving.
A TES poll of parents four years ago found that two-thirds felt behaviour in schools had deteriorated. In contrast, the new survey shows that only 29 per cent of parents in England think behaviour at their own child's school has worsened over the past five years and 35 per cent believe it has grown better.
Even taking parental pride in their children's schools into account, the change in attitudes remains striking.
In Wales, 44 per cent of parents who were surveyed by The TES in April said they felt that behaviour in Welsh schools had deteriorated, while only 13 per cent felt it had improved.
Surveyed again this summer about their child's own school, 37 per cent felt that behaviour had grown worse, but 32 per cent said it had become better.
Teachers continue to cite poor behaviour as the biggest obstacle to their work. Parents of secondary pupils agree that it is the chief problem, but only 14 per cent of primary parents listed it as a concern, less than half the proportion who said that a lack of funding was the main issue.
The vast majority (86 per cent) also agreed that "teachers generally do a good job in managing pupil behaviour".
Part of the difficulty in judging whether pupil behaviour has improved is that many indicators are affected by other factors.
The fall in permanent exclusions last year, for example, might suggest that fewer pupils are committing serious misdemeanours. But it could also indicate that some schools are resorting to unofficial exclusions instead.
Metropolitan police statistics suggest the proportion of crimes committed by under-18s in London has dropped from 24 to 20 per cent since 2000, a period in which crime figures in the capital fell overall.
If young people's behaviour is improving, one factor may be the Government's pound;342 million Behaviour Improvement Programme, launched two years ago in the 34 local authorities with the worst crime rates.
Schools involved in the scheme have had extra funding for mentors and often had police officers based on their premises.
Dr Sue Hallam, of London university's Institute of Education, has been evaluating the programme, but said hard figures were not yet available to show whether the project had cut truancy and exclusions.
But she said that schools she had visited were positive about the scheme and that many of its techniques - such as getting teachers to carry out a "behaviour audit" - were being copied by schools elsewhere.
Moyra Healey, the Department for Education and Skills' adviser on learning support units, believes pupil behaviour is no worse today than 30 years ago.
She told a seminar for new teachers, organised by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers last month: "What has changed is the way we deal with them, that is the difference."
She said that problems with behaviour had been swept under the carpet in the past.
Difficult children had been either kicked out of school or eased out and effectively were left "wandering the streets". But today the system dealt with them more honestly, she said.
The poll, which found overwhelming support for random searches for weapons and drugs by schools, was supported by Lynn Perchard, 45, who has a daughter, Emma, 13, at Queen Katherine school, and a 14-year-old son, Jonathan, at Sandgate special school, both in Kendal, Cumbria.
She said: "I think random searches are an excellent idea. It is sad it should come to this, but they would be a deterrent to a lot of people and I cannot see why anyone who has nothing to hide would object."
But Jane Pickard, 55, whose son Louis, 14, goes to Graveney School in Tooting, south London, said: "I think random searches are disrespectful to the student. If a teacher suspects a pupil is carrying something illegal then he should tell them to empty their pockets but I am against one in every 10 pupils being strip searched every morning. The vast majority are well behaved."
The TES poll, conducted by FDS International, was based on telephone interviews with a representative sample of 800 parents of school-aged children in England and 200 in Wales.
BEST BEHAVIOUR: MOYRA HEALY'S DOS AND DON'TS
* Use a seating plan and put "attention - needers" near the back, where they cannot take over the class.
* Appear hurt rather than angry, as it will appeal to pupils' better nature.
* Place disruptive pupils among the strong, well-behaved classmates.
* Make sure all pupils face you when you talk to them.
* Use the phrase "I need you to..."
* Use small sanctions consistently and give roughly four times as many rewards.
* Listen to those people who tell you "Don't smile until Christmas."
* Adopt the Mussolini stance - arms folded, puffed-up chest - as it will simply encourage confrontation.
* Use put-downs or sarcasm.
* Speak aggressively to children.
* Become involved in shouting matches with your pupils: they will win.
Moyra Healy is the Department for Education and Skills' adviser on learning support units