The government has talked repeatedly about increasing the powers given to teachers to deal with discipline issues. But schools are now being asked to carry out wide-ranging assessments of their most unruly pupils before employing the ultimate sanction: exclusion.
Evaluations should consider whether pupils have previously undiagnosed special educational needs, mental health problems or issues at home before they are barred from lessons, children's minister Sarah Teather has said.
Speaking to the Commons Education Select Committee last week, Ms Teather said that serial suspensions of pupils should trigger assessments from educational psychologists and other experts to find out what is making children disruptive at school.
Her calls follow statutory guidance, introduced earlier this year, which also encourages schools to carry out "multi-agency assessments" when pupils are repeatedly badly behaved.
"It may well be that there are problems at home, or they have a mental health problem," Ms Teather told MPs. "It's important to pick those things up as well. Just to assess for SEN if that's not the cause may still let that child down. There is likely to be a reason why that child's behaviour is escalating out of control."
While Ms Teather conceded that schools may still need to exclude pupils, this should not be done until the evaluations have been completed, she said.
Philippa Stobbs, assistant director at the Council for Disabled Children, said that Ms Teather's comments represented an important shift in government thinking. "I think the government's view had been that you couldn't come between a headteacher and exclusion because the situation could be a dangerous one," she said.
"It is essential that before a school excludes, teachers check and pick up on all relevant issues and make sure that strategies are in place to address them."
Some schools have a "no exclusion" policy and already use multi-agency assessments. At Swavesey Village College in Cambridgeshire, children are helped by family support workers and social care staff, with no permanent exclusions for 18 months.
Headteacher Martin Bacon said that this was only possible because funding for exclusion has been devolved to schools from Cambridgeshire County Council. "The key thing is for schools to have access to professional knowledge, and funding is absolutely critical," he said.
Schools taking part in the government's exclusion pilot scheme, which aims to reform the process so that teachers will be made more responsible for pupils even after they have been expelled, are trialling the use of assessments. No findings are yet available.
Debbie Jones, president of the Association of Directors of Children's Services, said that identifying problems early would help to prevent unnecessary exclusions.
"Schools do not need to wait until a child is at risk of exclusion before considering whether they would benefit from a multi-agency assessment and support package - all schools should be aware of how to access such support if required," she said.
But Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the size of the task "cannot be underestimated".
"There are all sorts of practical difficulties when different agencies work together," he said. "Schools will try very hard to put in place professional support, but the key issue has been whether that support was available quickly.
"Over the years there have been problems accessing that support before the pupil has been excluded. Headteachers have to think about the needs of other children in the class. If it is causing problems with their learning that is an intolerable situation."
A Department for Education spokesman said that there would be no "automatic trigger" for multi-agency assessments and that it would be up to headteachers to judge when they were necessary. It would not be "appropriate" to prevent exclusions "where this is warranted by the pupil's disruptive behaviour", he said.
ON BEST BEHAVIOUR
A government survey, commissioned by the Department for Education and published this week, questioned more than 1,600 teachers about standards of behaviour in their schools.
Three out of four (76 per cent) said they thought behaviour was "good" or "very good" - a 6 percentage-point rise compared with a previous survey in 2008.
However, one in four did not think that there was a good standard of behaviour in their school. Six per cent of teachers overall still believed that behaviour was "poor" or "very poor", while 19 per cent said it was merely "acceptable".