SCHOOLS must stop passing the buck by excluding pupils during lunch breaks, say children's rights campaigners.
Primary and secondary schools are increasingly excluding difficult and sometimes violent pupils during the midday break, handing the responsibility back to parents.
Department for Education and Employment guidance endorses the tactic, but children's groups want ministers to advise schools it should only be used as a last resort.
Naomi Chunilal, social policy officer at the Children's Society, said research had uncovered a significant number of lunchtime exclusions in primary schools, particularly in the first year of key stage 2. The research was carried out in south London.
Secondary pupils were also being turned out on to the streets without proper adult supervision.
She said: "It is very easy and convenient to do this because it is not counted in the same way as fixed-term exclusions. It is much easier just to exclude a child at lunch time and leave the parents to pick up the pieces."
Helen Rimington, a solicitor with the children's legal centre at the University of Essex, said the centre had asked the Government to tell teachers that the sanction should only be used when every other strategy was exhausted. "In the cases I have seen, this type of exclusion has actually exacerbated the problem," she added.
The National Children's Bureau is also concerned and believes the number of lunch-time exclusions is on the rise.
The existing government rules, set out in January's draft guidance, Social inclusion: pupil support, tell teachers of younger pupils to liaise with parents to ensure that youngsters are not left unsupervised. Schools are advised to use lunch-time exclusion as a short-term measure only.
Exclusions have been identified as a major problem by successive governments, with an estimated 2 million school days lost each year.
Phil Taylor, head of 450-pupil South Manchester high, said he usually had at least one child banned at lunch-time.
He said: "The legal position is that we are not required to take responsibility for children at lunch time. We are doing the parents a favour by looking after them. We are not a babysitting service.
"Pupils could well cause problems in the community but that is true of exclusions generally."
The head of an inner-city primary in the North-east, who refused to be named, admitted using the sanction.
He said: "If you had the resources to provide the right lunch-time activities and supervision you wouldn't do it, but teachers don't regularly supervise because of their large workload."
He said the lunch-time exclusions often had a positive impact on children's behaviour and were only made after persistent problems with pupils.
Sue Nicholson at the National Association of Head Teachers said: "There is an increasing problem concerning violent pupils at midday. It is essential that schools retain this right."
A DFEEspokesman said: "It is for headteachers to decide their discipline procedures. The guidance was issued for consultation and we will be issuing final guidance in the summer."