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For tests, read threats and fear

As more children show signs of mental health problems, a leading academic questions the Government's mindset

Tests, targets and league tables are doomed to failure in the battle to raise standards because they ignore basic psychological reality, according to a leading professor of child development.

Writing in this week's TES, Masud Hoghughi says that the Government's current strategy for dealing with weak schools is based on threats and fear, and is adding to their anxieties.

He believes the inspection regime demotivates struggling schools, which already have to cope with high levels of anti-social behaviour and mental illness among their pupils.

Last week, the Mental Health Foundation suggested that one in five pupils displays some sign of poor mental health, while one in 10 needs professional help.

Meanwhile the Department of Health has reported a rising incidence of mental illness among under-10s.

"If the Government were to heed even elementary psychological imperatives, it would see that inducing fear is not a good way of changing behaviour," says Hoghughi, professor of parenting and child development at the University of Northumbria, Newcastle, and a specialist in treating disturbed children - he is a consultant clinical psychologist, and was formerly head of the Aycliffe Centre for Children.

If weak schools are to do better, he says, it is essential that they be given hope and self-confidence.

He urges ministers to rethink their "top-down, threat-based" programme" to a more participative one. "A civilised society ought to realise that it is more sustainable and productive to motivate professionals positively than to add anxiety to what are already onerous and demanding jobs."

Speaking this week, professor Hoghughi called for "a gentle appreciation" of children with difficulties. "The children don't want to be that way," he said. "It's astonishing that the education department has not thought this through."

Without help and support, deprived schools would find it impossible to raise pupils' level of attainment.

Prof Hoghughi said that the problems they face are exacerbated by the absence of stable, supportive families.

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