THE Executive is trying to ensure that the recently started annual survey of violence in schools does not meet the fate of the tables on authorised and unauthorised absence. These are little regarded because the local authorities differ so much in how they interpret the raw data before sending it to central government. With violence in schools, a similar problem of definition immediately presents itself.
This year, the second for which statistics are available, brings another more pressing problem of interpretation. In the first round, for 1997-98, some authorities did not supply information, and in others reliable reporting starts only with 1998-99. With fuller information, a rise in the number of reported incidents was inevitable - from 743 to 1,898. That does not mean an upsurge in violence.
As the statistics become better known, another barrier to identifying trends arises. Teachers who shrugged off an incident or mentioned it only informally to coleagues ("That young sod tried to kick me on the shin") will feel encouraged to log it. Therefore across the country the number of notified incidents is bound to rise, and the Education Minister is exhorting teachers to be frank even if that may bring tricky headlines for several years to come.
How should "violence" be defined? Verbal abuse is included along with punching, kicking or worse. But if a young child (even in pre-school, where 40 incidents were reported) swears at a teacher is that violence or a reflection of home circumstances and the kind of frustration that is paralleled by normally sensible adults kicking the furniture and contributing to the swear-box? Teachers face a similar dilemma if a child uses racist vocabulary.
Most attention still has to be given to the minority of serious assaults, and that is where the range of strategies, including staff training and balancing exclusion against alternative sanctions, has its place.