Leading Article: Giving up on children - now that's naughty

"Some children are just plain naughty," said a speaker at the NAS/UWT teachers' union conference in Bournemouth yesterday. How wonderfully quaint. Insubordinate, maybe. Violent, often. Psychopathic, even. But naughty? If only.

There is a growing problem of discipline in our schools, even if the NAS/UWT has a vested interest in exaggeration. It has decided that its pitch in the battle to recruit members is to make an issue of classroom disorder, the theme of its conference. If the schoolmasters and women teachers sometimes sound as if their union's mission is to exclude as many pupils as possible, it is because it is engaged in fierce recruitment competition with the NUT, which believes in "inclusive" education.

This week, the lines of argument were starkly drawn. The NAS/UWT called for disruptive children to be taken out of mainstream schools and dealt with in special schools and "pupil referral units". The NUT called for more resources and smaller classes to help teachers to deal with difficult pupils, and condemned attempts to "demonise" troublemakers.

This is an important debate, in which the NUT is right in ideal principle while the NAS/UWT is right in practical reality. It is right, in principle, that all schools should try to assimilate disruptive children and change their behaviour. It is wrong, in principle, to dump problem children in special units, where they are likely to be pushed from pillar to post, because after pillar-and-post they move on to crime. It is wrong, in principle, to label children negatively. This point is often derided as political correctness, but is an important aspect of inclusive education. Chris Keates, the speaker who labelled "some children" yesterday as "just plain naughty", was not just quaint, she was wrong. Children may do terrible things, and they may persist in doing them, but to label them is to give up on them. What was worrying, too, was her use of the word "naughty", which would normally only apply to primary-school children. To write off children as irredeemable before the age of 11 is to abdicate responsibility. Even if a few children are in fact irrecoverably "bad", that cannot be the governing assumption of public policy.

But our schools are not places where pure principles are easily applied. In practice, the laudable aim of inclusiveness (once known as the comprehensive principle) is so far from being realised that different rules apply to the world as it is.

Mainly due to government policy, more than 11,000 children are excluded every year - triple the number three years ago. This educational underclass has been created partly by the introduction of league tables, which give headteachers an incentive to use exclusion as a form of post-entry selection. If your exam results are likely to bring down the average, then make sure your top button is done up, or out you go.

The NAS/UWT wants the underclass to grow. This is the union that threatened to strike in the Ridings school, Halifax, and Manton junior school, Worksop, if disruptive children were not excluded. It is the union whose leader, Nigel de Gruchy, last month called for 100,000 disruptive pupils to be transferred to special schools so that teachers could get on with teaching.

While having sympathy with the problems that teachers face in many schools trying to maintain discipline and order, the de Gruchy solution is the wrong one. But the direction of education policy cannot be reversed overnight, and the union is right to focus on classroom discipline as a problem to be solved rather than as a sociological phenomenon to be explained. There are analogies here with the Blairist formula on crime, a closely-related issue. Government and schools must be tough on indiscipline and tough on the causes of indiscipline.

This means that children who disrupt the education of their peers must continue to be removed from the classroom. League tables should be presented in terms of "added value", in order to reduce the incentive to discard low achievers, but disruptive children must be ruthlessly and fairly dealt with.

Much more attention must be paid, however, to those who are excluded, and to the causes of their exclusion. At the moment, the situation is chaotic. Neither central government nor local councils know how many children are not at school for disciplinary reasons. According to an Ofsted report last year, pupil referral units, which are supposed to provide these children with tuition, are expensive but do not provide good value for money. And because most children are excluded from school "permanently", the system is not geared to getting them back into mainstream education.

The causes of the breakdown of order in so many schools are many and complex. Problems that begin in the home are exacerbated by the glamorisation of violence and materialism in popular culture, and are allowed to flourish by the disorder encroaching on our public spaces generally.

But it is in primary schools that many of the causes can be dealt with, or at least mitigated. As teachers in Bournemouth testified yesterday, discipline is increasingly a problem in this age-group, although stories of chair-throwing five-year-olds have to be treated as curios rather than as bases of sound policy. It is important that all primary schools have a disciplinary code; it does not really matter which of many good schemes is adopted, as long as it is clear, and clearly communicated to parents. This, rather than labelling children "plain naughty", is the way forward. And in this, the teaching unions are also right: discipline and order in the classroom should be at the forefront of the Great Education Debate which ought to be dominating this election but sadly, as yet, is not.