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Facts on absence play truant

Scottish Office figures on pupil absence have been dismissed as "a joke" by one of Scotland's leading children's officers.

Data issued this week suggests that only three out of 32 education authorities have permanently excluded pupils from secondary school to any significant extent: Aberdeen, East Lothian and Highland have parted company with 139 pupils.

But the total number of exclusions is actually 155, the difference being accounted for by four authorities where the numbers are between zero and five and therefore too small to be counted. Every other authority submitted a zero return.

A similar picture emerges in the primary sector, with Aberdeen, East Lothian and Highland accounting for the bulk of the 30 permanent exclusions.

The explanation, according to Russell Forrest, pupil support services manager in Edinburgh, is the Scottish Office's decision to regard permanent exclusions as a withdrawal from the school register. Edinburgh and Glasgow insist that pupils should remain a statistic on the register until an alternative placement has been found. "We regard that as good practice," Mr Forrest says.

Edinburgh's own figures show 53 permanent exclusions from secondary schools and 15 from primary. Mr Forrest says these figures were returned to the Scottish Office but it refused to publish them along with the council's reservations.

Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, admitted concern over the figures on Monday and promised action when the Moray House Institute study into exclusions is published.

Local authorities are particularly annoyed by the insistence on treating temporary exclusions as unauthorised absences. "Edinburgh and a large number of other authorities regard a temporary exclusion as approved leave because it is executive action taken by the headteacher," Mr Forrest comments. "It is not the parents' fault, so how can it be viewed as unauthorised?" The four east central Scotland councils have continued the policy inherited from Lothian Region and were furious at the statement that "Edinburgh, East Lothian, Midlothian and West Lothian were unable to provide data for temporary exclusions".

The Scottish Office acknowledges that comparisons between education authorities "should be treated with great caution". That is "the understatement of the year", Mr Forrest observed.

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