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True image or rosy tint?

Have schools really turned the corner on discipline? A Government opinion poll suggests that by the end of 2002 teachers were much more positive about pupil behaviour than they were at the start of that year (page 1).

That could just be the optimism engendered by the new school year, though traditionally the autumn term is the longest and most gruelling. By November, when they were polled, teachers might have been expected to show signs of wear and tear. So has the creation of more learning support and pupil-referral units, and explicit ministerial support for a tougher line on exclusions, made a difference? If so, did they really help to curb indiscipline? Or did they just give teachers the impression that things were getting better?

Perceptions rather than actuality are what opinion polls deal with. But if there really has been a sea-change, teachers would certainly be the first to perceive it. Parents polled in the same survey still see behaviour as getting worse.

The chief inspector did not seem to register any improvement in his annual report last month either. But that may say more about the insensitivity of school inspectors to the real classroom milieu.

Teacher unions have been less inclined to boycott particularly troublesome pupils in recent months. Again this reflects staffroom attitudes and might suggest that the extremes of bad behaviour may have diminished.

Staffing shortages at secondary level and the consequent dependence on less effective or supply staff (not necessarily the same thing) have not helped.

As every head knows, consistent discipline and good order depend upon stability in the staffroom. But improvements in teaching registered by Ofsted may have contributed to better behaviour. The best pastoral policies are often academic ones.

If behaviour really is improving, it is excellent news, not least because it represents the combined efforts of government, local authority behaviour support teams and the relentless hard work of teachers and heads.

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