Classrooms are the new battleground for parties eager to be seen to be tough on disruption. Michael Shaw reports
A "zero-tolerance" crackdown on misbehaviour in schools was launched this week by Education Secretary Ruth Kelly as Labour and the Conservatives tried to out-do each other with pledges to tackle disruptive pupils.
Ms Kelly announced that by 2007 she expects all schools to be working together to improve behaviour, sharing their funds and expertise.
"By exercising their collective buying power, I expect that groups of schools will be able to use customer pressure to drive up the quality of provision outside schools for challenging pupils, which for too long has been the Cinderella of the education world," she told a conference for new secondary heads.
Ms Kelly said she would be ordering local authorities to examine how they could improve learning support units in schools and pupil referral units outside of them, with a "starting assumption" that they would be passing on funding to schools to manage these facilities.
But she back-tracked on a plan announced by her predecessor Charles Clarke that required all schools to ensure they took on their fair share of excluded pupils by September.
Ms Kelly said she was giving schools an "additional breathing space" of two years to make sure they had the right facilities. However, schools would still need to admit other hard-to-place pupils, such as asylum-seekers and children in care from September.
The delay was welcomed by teachers' unions but was described as a "breathtakingly cynical U-turn" by Conservatives.
Ms Kelly also announced she had instructed the Office for Standards in Education to revisit any schools where inspectors found unsatisfactory behaviour within 12 months.
The National Association of Head Teachers criticised the plan, saying the Government was using Ofsted as a "stick to beat schools".
David Hart, general secretary of the NAHT, said: "These schools are often struggling against the odds. They need support not punitive action."
However, Ofsted sources said the proposal would make little difference to inspections, as most of the 10 per cent of schools where behaviour is unsatisfactory are already under extra scrutiny and often in special measures or serious weaknesses.
Sue Kirkham, head of Walton high, Stafford, and vice-president of the Secondary Heads Association, said schools were making progress in tackling bad behaviour by working in partnerships.
"None of these plans will bring a great change unless the money goes to schools - but if the funding really is devolved they will."
Daniel Penn, head of learning development at Broughton Hall high school in Liverpool, said he was pleased excluded pupils would get better support.
"It seems a very tolerant zero-tolerance policy, really," he said.
The Conservatives promised to take a yet tougher stance on pupil misbehaviour, announcing plans to give schools extra funding for metal detectors, CCTV cameras and drug tests.
The party restated its pledges to create a pound;200 million network of "turnaround" schools for misbehaving pupils and to abolish exclusion appeals panels.
A teacher at a school where an excluded pupil was recently re-instated was among those describing their daily behaviour nightmares on The TES online staffroom.
"There's mob rule in the corridors and gangs running riot," he wrote. "I gave a detention to a child whose exclusion had been overruled and was called every name under the sun.
"That afternoon I went to my car to find the tyres let down and a note under the wiper saying that next time my brakes would be cut."
Another teacher said: "One of my pupils who was expelled from another school, tried to strangle a small girl at lunchtime. I marched him off to the head, who criticised me for disturbing her."
The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers said it felt pupils deserved the right to an appeal, but that more action was needed to protect schools from "perverse decisions" by appeal panels which had reinstated violent and disruptive pupils.