Is exclusion the best answer to the problems set by children such as Richard Wilding.
He seemed an unlikely candidate for the title the Schoolboy From Hell. Richard Wilding, 13, well-turned out in his blazer and tie, with short, combed hair, looked anxious rather than threatening. Yet the dispute over his future at Glaisdale comprehensive in Nottingham sparked a guerrilla war in the heart of Middle England.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers, sounded triumphant when agreement was reached that Richard would not be taught on the school premises. "I am immensely proud of the NASUWT members at Glaisdale school," he said as he called off the threatened strike. "They have made a principled stand in support of acceptable standards of behaviour. The entire nation ought to be grateful to them."
The principle had been established, Mr de Gruchy said, that parents cannot choose whatever school they like for their children regardless of their behaviour.
Headteachers were taking a strong line too. The independent panels which parents have the right to appeal to if their child's exclusion is confirmed, should be overhauled, said the National Association of Head Teachers. The union wants the right of heads and governors to expel pupils strengthened.
But the case is the tip of an iceberg which has been steadily growing in recent years largely as a result of the Government's education reforms. The number of pupils permanently excluded has rocketed from 11,000 in 19934 to an estimated 15,000 this year. And this seems likely to continue. Mr de Gruchy reckoned there could be as many as 150,000 pupils his members ought not to be forced to teach.
The roots of this explosion are not hard to trace: with parents now having a much greater right to choose where to send their children, and with cash following pupils, numbers on roll are crucial. Schools cannot risk too many complaints from parents about disruptive pupils, and difficult youngsters like Richard Wilding may be paying the price.
There is no doubt that disruptive behaviour is a problem. The recent survey of pupils' attitudes by Keele University's education department found 92 per cent of children in Year 11 complained of their work being disrupted by other pupils. Teachers' unions complain of a rising tide of aggressive behaviour and the tabloid press is only too happy to endorse their warnings of classroom Armageddon.
But the worry among some educationists is that, however awful the behaviour of some children may be, expulsion is becoming an easy option and merely storing up problems for the future. And the effect on the youngsters may be counter-productive. Before Richard Wilding's removal from the school was agreed, Glaisdale tried isolating him in a classroom with a teacher he did not like for the whole day. In what seems like solitary confinement he was not, according to his parents, even allowed out for breaks.
Peter Wilson, director of Young Minds, the campaign for children's mental health, said: "Many difficult pupils feel a sense of being neglected and abandoned and expelling them can do nothing but make that worse and exacerbate their anti-social behaviour. It's the most appalling thing to do to a human. "
But the price of a mass exclusion policy will not only be paid by those pupils who are exiled, however justified it may seem. Referral units like the one Richard Wilding will now attend are far more expensive to run than mainstream schools. As the teaching unions and local authorities demand more money to cope with unruly pupils the referral solution seems likely, sooner or later, to lead to arguments that services for troublemakers are being more generously funded than those for the well-behaved.
It seems a dilemma. Few would argue against teachers' rights not to be forced to face aggressive, possibly violent pupils, and continuing cuts in funds and rising class sizes have almost certainly raised tensions. The political climate, with both major parties stressing the responsibilities of the individual, is not likely to foster a kindly attitude towards anti- social behaviour. Popular sympathy for young delinquents is thin on the ground.
Education Secretary Gillian Shephard's longer-term plans for legislation to deal with disruptive pupils, outlined at the NASUWT conference last month, involve a drive to "put discipline at the heart of action to improve standards." She told the Secondary Heads Association last week that appeals committees should take account of the whole school's interests, not just those of the disruptive pupil.
Ironically, Mrs Shephard for once finds herself singing the same tune as one of the most militant teachers' unions on this issue. Pressure from the NASUWT and others, coupled with Government strategy, makes it more than likely that the number of Richard Wildings out in the cold, like Britain's prison population, will continue rising.
The solution to the Nottinghamshire dispute, said Mr de Gruchy, was an example of "trade unionism at its best". But it seems obvious, and perhaps Mrs Shephard is pondering this very thought, that there is more to it than that.