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Primary school principals in the Hawke's Bay are shocked at survey results from the region which show that one in five children exhibit severe behaviour.

The behaviour is so bad it is having an impact on the learning of all children in the classroom and on the general health and confidence of teachers, said Hawke's Bay Primary Principals' Association spokesman Malcolm Dixon.

The findings of the survey, commissioned by the association and carried out by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, were likely to be reflected in classrooms around the country, he said.

Mr Dixon said principals knew they had a problem but were shocked at the extent of it.

They are now calling for a complete overhaul of schools' access to funding and additional staff to deal with severe behaviour and enable all students to achieve to their ability.

Responses from 525 teachers at 79 schools in September last year found:

* One in five of the 12,787 Hawke's Bay pupils covered by the survey was either a danger to others, disrupted other pupils' learning or damaged property.

* Just under a third of the responding teachers had at least one pupil who physically attacked other pupils.

* Six per cent of teachers reported ongoing physical attacks on themselves or teachers aides.

The worst rates of bad behaviour were found in schools in poorer areas (35 per cent), among boys (31 per cent), and in year 7-8 pupils (28 per cent).

Mr Dixon, principal of Frimley Primary School in Hastings, said the report highlighted the fact that schools were "grossly under-resourced" to deal with children displaying severe behaviour problems.

The findings were a wake-up call for the Ministry of Education, whose delivery of special needs services were "virtually a non-event", he said.

Existing funding for special needs covered only 1 per cent of the school-aged population, while the research identified 7 per cent of children who displayed three or more behaviours considered to be "severe".

Mr Dixon said there were a number of factors causing the deterioration of behaviour in schools.

There were more and more children being poorly parented as parents worked longer hours, children were watching inappropriate material on television unsupervised, and many were exposed to drug-taking in the household from their early years, he said.

"So family life for a number of children is falling down around their ears."

Mr Dixon said the principals now wanted to use the survey findings to put additional pressure on Education Minister Chris Carter and the Ministry of Education for extra cash to deal with the escalating problem.

If successful, the money would be used for parenting support, extra help for teachers in the classroom, and counselling for the problem children.

"These children need some proper psychologists to assist them because their problems are not going away and down the track they are ending up in prison."

Mr Dixon said schools had told successive education ministers that more support was needed, but the ministry's response was to simply demand that schools cut the rate of suspensions and stand-downs without providing them with the necessary resources.

The survey proved the minister and the ministry were "completely out of touch" with classroom realities.

The findings of the Hawke's Bay survey echoed a report commissioned last year by the New Zealand Foundation for Character Education.

That study found that deteriorating classroom conduct reflected the rising number of dysfunctional homes in New Zealand.

While living standards seemed to be improving, there was evidence that significant changes in the values systems of the community had come at a social cost and affected children, said foundation chairman Rod Galloway.

"Nowhere is this more dramatic than in the change to family life."

Statistics showed New Zealand had an epidemic of absent fathers with the second highest rate of single parenthood in the OECD - a figure that had tripled in the last 30 years.

"While many of these families are doing a fine job, the combined effect of older, busier, and often emotionally, physically and financially stressed parents is having a significant impact on classroom teaching and learning."

In September, the Post Primary Teachers Association (PPTA), released an updated version of its anti-violence tool kit to help secondary school teachers implement policies to deal with difficult and violent students.

PPTA president Robin Duff said clear policies within schools and extra funding on a national level were urgently needed to protect teachers from physical and psychological harm.