Giving teachers more power to challenge bad behaviour has been a mantra of the Conservatives since their days in opposition. But now in government, education secretary Michael Gove has been accused of imposing "fines" on schools that want to permanently exclude unruly pupils.
Reforms due to be introduced from September mean that schools will have to pay a #163;4,000 levy if they choose to press ahead with exclusions against the recommendations of an independent review panel.
The proposal has prompted angry responses from head-teacher and classroom unions, which claim that it will unfairly penalise schools and lead to other pupils missing out on funding.
"This blanket approach fails to recognise the individual context of each exclusion," said Alison Ryan, policy adviser for teaching union the ATL.
"If a school has followed due process and done all within its power to avoid this ultimate sanction, then it should not be penalised by a substantial fine. Where schools have some autonomy over their admissions policies, this may result in schools avoiding taking pupils who have a record of challenging behaviour."
The changes are part of a series of moves that had been designed to strengthen the power of schools to expel pupils. Old-style exclusion appeal panels - which could force heads to readmit pupils - are being replaced by hearings that can only recommend that a school reinstates excluded pupils.
That idea had met with the approval of headteachers until they were told that ignoring the recommendation would attract a compulsory #163;4,000 contribution to the excluded child's future education.
The government said this was "fair" and recognised "the potentially significant extra costs" of their alternative education provision. A consultation on the changes, which closed last month, said that a flat-rate sum could be "clearly understood and consistently applied".
But Martin Ward, public affairs director of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the payment was "widely seen as a fine on the school and hence on its other students". "(This) is underlined by the fact that it is not related to actual costs or to the time in the educational or financial year at which the exclusion is made," he added.
Heads' union the NAHT, in its response to the consultation, said that the sum would have a disproportionate impact on smaller schools.
In 2009-10 - the latest year for which figures are available - there were 510 appeals lodged by parents against the permanent exclusion of their children. Objections were upheld in 110 cases, with panels directing reinstatement for 30 children.
Adele Eastman, senior policy specialist at the Centre for Social Justice, anticipated that the reformed system would lead a number of schools to "take the financial hit rather than reinstate some pupils".
"It seems likely that it will be cheaper for them to do so - to have their budget readjusted by #163;4,000, rather than keep them on roll and potentially address their challenging behaviour by means, for example, of a referral to alternative education provision and on a longer-term basis," she said in her response to the consultation.
"This could inadvertently create a perverse incentive for schools to exclude pupils unfairly and avoid reinstating them."
The NUT has always been opposed to appeal panels losing the right to force schools to take excluded children back, arguing that vulnerable children and those with special educational needs would face increased risks of being kept away from school.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said they wanted to reduce the need for exclusion and introduce safeguards for vulnerable pupils. "Independent review panels will provide an impartial review of a school's decision to permanently exclude a pupil," she said.
"Where a governing body is directed to reconsider their decision but does not reinstate the pupil, the school will be expected to pay an additional financial contribution towards the costs of providing an alternative education."
NO PASSING THE BUCK
More than 300 English schools are currently trialling further government reforms to exclusion that would see them retain responsibility for the children they expel.
Under the proposals, the subsequent exam results of excluded children will count towards the league table positions of their original schools.
Headteachers will receive the funding normally used by local authorities for the education of excluded children and use it to pay for alternative provision or a place at a pupil referral unit.
The aim is that children's progress will be better monitored and their attainment will improve. It is hoped that the change will encourage teachers to intervene earlier with children at risk of being excluded. The trial is due to finish in July 2014.