UP to 20,000 of the most vulnerable children in the country are unofficially excluded each year because schools cannot cope with them, special needs campaigners warned this week.
Schools are giving parents the choice of keeping their children at home or seeing them formally excluded. Thousands are opting for the former, the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA)said.
The special education panel believes that schools are increasingly resorting to informal exclusion because the Government and councils are putting pressure on them to accept pupils with special needs without providing the necessary resources.
Their warning is the latest complaint about so-called "back-door" exclusions. A report by the Association of London Government, published two weeks ago, said that increasing numbers of black pupils were victims of informal exclusions.
The law allows for two types of school exclusion, permanent and fixed-term (up to 45 days per year). In each case the event is recorded and schools have a legal duty to notify parents of their rights.
Informal exclusions include a variety of other circumstances in which pupils are forced out of school.
Some parents are told to keep their child at home until further notice.
Others are told to pick their child up at the end of mornings because of a lack of appropriate lunchtime supervision.
Pupils can be recorded as authorised absent or even present while not attending lessons.
The special education panel estimates that the total number of permanent, temporary and informal exclusions of pupils with SEN is around 40,000 each year.
Based on evidence from their casework they estimate that unofficial exclusions make up about half of these and are on the increase as schools struggle to come to terms with the Government's inclusion agenda.
Carl Parsons, a specialist on exclusions at Canterbury Christ Church College, Kent, said that it was difficult to put a figure on unofficial exclusions but that IPSEA's estimate was "reasonable".
John Wright, of IPSEA, said: "Local authorities are including through the front door while headteachers quietly exclude by the back. It can be done with the best of intentions. Often it happens where a school has made it clear that it cannot deal with a child's needs but does not want to give them the stigma of being excluded. But the results are absolutely disastrous."
The Government does not publish figures showing the total number of pupils with special needs excluded each year, although they report that 808 pupils with special needs statements were permanently excluded.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education and Skills said:
"Unofficial exclusions are not condoned in any way.
"Parents should not be pressured into removing their child from school under the threat of exclusion."