Teachers are fearful of tackling poor pupil behaviour over worries that it will "spiral out of control" and damage their careers, according to research commissioned by the Government.
Many teachers feel that dealing with disruptive children is "beyond their remit" and instead rely on senior staff and behaviour specialists, the research claims.
Education secretary Michael Gove has promised greater powers for teachers to deal with troublesome children, but researchers found that most "defer responsibility" to others.
"Teachers claimed to experience an underlying sense of fear in working with children (with poor behaviour)," according to the study, based on 45 hours of interviews with teachers in London, Birmingham and Leeds.
"Their biggest fear was that they may deal withor be seen to deal with behaviour wrongly or inappropriately and that ensuing consequences will be very serious: damage a child or teacher, especially their career."
Teachers claimed they had no clear "rights and responsibilities" to tackle poor behaviour. None of those who took part in the survey had heard of all the legal powers they have to discipline pupils. When told about them, there was "little apparent understanding" of how they could be used, the researchers said.
"Teachers did not consider the powers empowering," they noted. "They did not feel protected to use the powers and were very fearful of them being detrimental to themselvestheir career as well as to pupils."
Knowledge of legal powers was low even among school leaders, who often did not understand how to implement them, it said.
Those who took part in the survey said that parents actively tried to challenge their decisions, pupils repeatedly pushed the boundaries, and councils and Government were "completely removed" from behaviour management.
Teachers said there were "few, if any" strategies for dealing with "mid-level" bad behaviour, such as verbal abuse, swearing, using mobile phones, spitting, jumping on tables, and pushing and shoving.
Sir Alan Steer, a former head and the previous government's "behaviour tsar", said the research echoed his experience of teachers being unaware of the powers they possess. "Those available to them, for example restraint, are very hard to use and teachers feel they don't have any clear guidelines," he said. "Heads need to be visible in the school, to find out if there are difficulties and to be readily at hand."
Patrick Roach, deputy general secretary of the NASUWT, said that many teachers felt heads are "divorced" from the realities of classroom life. "Teachers also tell us their initial training was inadequate to equip them to deal with bad behaviour," he said.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said: "If decisions in school are sensitive it's no wonder teachers push them up the hierarchy - that's as it should be and heads are paid more to deal with tough situations."
WHAT TEACHERS SAID
'I don't know my rights' - Quotes from the report
- I was unaware of many of the details of the 'main powers' available to teachers. My understanding was that it was down to the individual school to decide what we could and couldn't do. (female, primary, Leeds)
- I don't feel confident that the head would back me up if a student accused me of something while I was searching them or trying to break up a fight. I would get automatically suspended and it could be the end of my career. (male, secondary boys comp, London)
- It's not clear what our rights and responsibilities are. Different teachers have their own ideas about where the job stops. (female, secondary comp, Leeds).