THE number of children permanently excluded has fallen to its lowest level since reliable records began in 1995, according to the latest government statistics.
The decrease is almost all due to the drop in the number of boys expelled from school. While boys still account for the vast majority of exclusions (83 per cent) the proportion expelled fell significantly for the first time last year.
But heads and teachers' organisations said that the drop should not be celebrated because it was the result of schools feeling forced into keeping disruptive pupils.
Nigel de Gruchy, of the National Assocation of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said: "Teachers are paying a very high price in increased stress and thousands of other pupils are having their education disrupted as a consequence."
John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said: "Even before the Government's circular on exclusions, local authorities were using exclusion targets to pressure schools into not excluding pupils because there was little alternative provision in place."
The effects of the circular would probably mean a further drop next year, Mr Dunford said, even though the Government now accepted that its policy had been wrong.
Education Secretary David Blunkett infuriated unions last year with new targets to cut the number of expulsions by a third from 12,500 to 8,400 by 2002 and controversial exclusion guidelines for schools.
But in August the Government retreated and told headteachers that they woul have the power to exclude permanently pupils for serious breaches of discipline.
In a television interview last week, Mr Blunkett went even further saying he had been wrong to put so much pressure on headteachers over exclusions.
Since 1995, the number of boys expelled remained roughly constant at 27 in every 10,000, falling to 22 last year. The figure for girls has stayed at five in 10,000.
The proportion of pupils from ethnic minorities who are expelled also fell faster than the national average, but is still much higher than the expulsion rate for white students.
Black pupils are still far more likely to be expelled than any other ethnic group. African-Caribbean pupils are nearly four times more likely to be expelled than white students - although this is a slight improvement on last year.
Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese pupils are the least likely to be excluded.
The school with the highest exclusion rates in 1995-99 expelled 4.4 per cent of its pupils. Another expelled a quarter of its non-white students during this time.
From 1995 to 1998 more than 12,000 children were permanently excluded every year - about 17 children in every 10,000. In 1998-99 the number fell to less than 10,500, or 14 children in every 10,000.
Fourteen-year-olds are still the most likely age-group to be excluded, accounting for nearly three out of 10 exclusions. Twelve to 15-year-olds account for 80 per cent of all exclusions.
Thirteen four-year-olds were expelled last year - the first time this age group has been included in these figures since 1995-96.
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