The Government has been trumpeting the 3 per cent fall - from 12,700 in 1996-97 to 12,300 last year - as a step in the right direction. It wants exclusions reduced by a third by 2002, and this week issued new guidance to schools and education authorities on managing disaffected and excluded pupils.
But a TES analysis shows the improvement in the figures has not affected all ethnic groups equally.
The Commission for Racial Equality has long argued that specific targets are needed. The Government has so far resisted setting targets for high-risk groups, such as black Caribbean boys, children in care, and pupils with statements of special educational need. Joe Charlesworth, a senior policy officer with the CRE, said: " The only way to reduce disproportionate exclusions is to set specific targets within the Government's general target."
A Department for Education and Employment spokeswoman said 12 education authorities have been ordered to produce action plans to deal with their "extremely high" exclusion rates for black and other ethnic minority pupils.
Black Caribbean pupils remain at the highest risk of exclusion, and in 1997-98 were nearly 4.5 times more likely to be compelled to leave school than white children - up from 4.2 the previous year.
Schools in a sixth of education authorities are excluding some black children at a rate of one in 100 or more. In Richmond, London, 3.75 per cent of black Caribbean pupils were excluded. In Surrey and Gloucestershire, the figures were nearing 2 per cent. Nearly 3 per cent of pupils classified as "black other" were expelled in Coventry, and just over 2 per cent of that group in Manchester.
The average for all exclusions in England was less than one in 500 (0.18 per cent). National exclusion rates for black Caribbean and black other pupils are 0.76 and 0.57 per cent respectively.
In six education authority areas (Barnet, Coventry, Gloucestershire, Haringey, Richmond, Surrey), some black children are nine to 13 times more likely to be excluded than white pupils. In seven (Bedfordshire, Derby City, Hertfordshire, Leeds, Oxfordshire, Sheffield, Walsall) Asian pupils - nationally, at below average risk of exclusion - are being excluded at higher rates than local white children.