A sharp rise of 54 per cent in permanent exclusions from Scottish schools prompted a knee-jerk response from some.
Conservative Lord James Douglas-Hamilton seized the opportunity to bemoan the "shocking state of indiscipline in our schools" after figures were released last month.
But as Scottish Executive targets to reduce exclusions had been relaxed, an increase was not unexpected. More surprising, and much more interesting, was that a handful of education authorities managed to buck the national trend and significantly lower their number of exclusions.
One authority in particular, and only one, has overseen a steady and consistent fall for the past five years: Renfrewshire. So how is it doing it?
Culture change is the key, says senior adviser Alan Locke. "We now have a focus on inclusion rather than exclusion, behaviour management rather than discipline. Behaviour is an additional support need."
This culture change did not happen overnight and is still in progress.
Beliefs, attitudes and practices of people take a lot of turning. What makes the effort worthwhile, though, is the dramatic effects on individuals.
On a chilly February morning, Mark Brown is warming his back, and the chef's whites he is wearing, over a radiator in the corridor at Reid Kerr College in Paisley. "I couldn't do exams at school because I was always in bother," says the 16-year-old.
"When I came here on New Directions, I really liked it, man. I got qualifications at the end of the year, then I could come back for another three years if I wanted to. I'm studying catering now."
New Directions provides an alternative curriculum for S4 pupils, taking them out of their school, while keeping them on its roll, and placing them full-time in Reid Kerr College, where they study core skills and vocational subjects of their choosing. A Strathclyde University evaluation published in 2004 concluded the project was a highly successful attempt at tackling disaffection and under-achievement.
Building on this success, Renfrewshire introduced an alternative curriculum last year for S3 pupils at risk of exclusion. Extended New Directions also delivers core skills and vocational learning, but with a more flexible curriculum and timetable that sees teenagers studying in school, at college and in the community.
"They get a big say in what they study and they like that," says the project leader, Robbie Smith. "There's less pressure on them, so they can cope, and they get Asdan (Award Scheme Development and Accreditation Network) qualifications at the end of the year. I've got 36 pupils on the programme and it's working for all of them."
Teenagers on both the programmes are in the minority, however, since most pupils with challenging behaviour remain, with the help of various support structures, within their schools.
In the same week that the Scottish Executive quietly dropped its target of making every school an integrated community school by 2007, Renfrewshire explained that the reason for its striking statistics was a determinedly integrated approach.
The need for determination features in a new report, Making a Difference, by Brian Boyd and Jim Doherty of Strathclyde University, who refer to the "continuing difficulties of inter-agency working" in general.
The problem is also recognised by the Scottish Executive, which conceded earlier this month, when it redefined its target for integrated community schools, that successful cross-sectoral working only happens where there is "strong leadership and commitment at all levels through local authorities, school senior management teams and in the classroom".
At the heart of the commitment in Renfrewshire is its home link service, a team of professionals who bridge the gaps and oil the workings between agencies, in particular the two most influential agencies in most young people's lives: home and school.
"It's not always easy to get parents involved," admits home link co-ordinator Susan Bell, "but it is crucial. Having somebody, other than school management, who can talk to them about their kids and listen to their side, helps enormously. Our people come from a variety of backgrounds - education, social work, health - and intentionally so. We put them all through an intensive programme of staff development."
Home link workers can convince disengaged parents of the value of being involved with their child's learning, says pupil support manager Martin Doherty. "Headteachers and depute heads are powerful beasts, so a lot of parents disengage because they feel powerless within the system.
"I've been to a lot of meetings where the home link worker has been a powerful advocate of the family and the young person. It's a job that requires huge skills and it plays a key role in all this."
But that role is not confined to advocacy for the family, says Ms Bell.
"It's a balancing act. Teachers, unsure of us at first, are now ready to see us as part of what they are trying to do."
In Renfrewshire schools, the mind-shift from exclusion to inclusion is well under way. Gleniffer High pupils can now spend up to 28 of a total 30 periods a week out of class, often in the vibrant and inviting behaviour support base, where small group working supports their needs and learning.
Behaviour support bases have now been set up in all Renfrewshire secondary schools.
"We have made dramatic progress in the past two years," says David Nicholls, the headteacher at Gleniffer High.
The exclusion statistics Renfrewshire compiles each month back this up, clearly demonstrating the effectiveness of the school's new systems. But the change is about people more than statistics. "You would sit down at exclusion meetings with parents who clearly weren't coping and needed support themselves," says Mr Nicholls.
"We realised it couldn't just be about getting kids out of the door. We were excluding children; we weren't supporting them.
"We wanted parity with learning and pastoral support, so we appointed a principal teacher of behaviour support. We have a depute head of pupil support, who pulls it all together, which I believe is crucial. We've produced a paper matching all the pupils on behaviour support with their learning support needs, so staff can see the whole picture."
Other initiatives at Gleniffer High include an alternative curriculum for disaffected pupils, offering courses in citizenship, community work, animation, theatrical make-up and welding.
"It's about changing people's mind-set, and that takes time," says Mr Nicholls. "We have the whole range of young people at this school, from those who are out of class 28 periods a week to those who get five level A Highers. We aim to support all of them."
While behaviour support provision differs in detail from one Renfrewshire school to another, all now share the same organising structure and a set of guiding principles: collaborative working, integrated assessment, information sharing, partnership with parents, minimum intervention and accountability.
The key mechanism for putting policy into practice is the extended support team (EST) meeting. "These are monthly, multi-agency meetings," says Grace Hannigan, the headteacher at St Fergus's Primary in Paisley. "Management, staff, home link workers, social workers, health, maybe psychology, all come together to assess pupils' needs and decide on the appropriate support. Significant difficulties with a particular child could mean we call a second-tier EST meeting, which is more focused and to which parents are invited. A support plan is drawn up and actions agreed, and we might involve external agencies such as counsellors."
Structures such as circle time, tea parties with staff, star pupil awards, class contracts and good role models create a supportive ethos at St Fergus's Primary. "We like to catch kids being good and celebrate achievement. At the same time we identify children who are at risk through the EST framework," says Ms Hannigan.
Supporting pupils rather than punishing them is the key to Renfrewshire's success story and the benefits - in terms of statistics and young lives - are clear. But support should not be suffocating, says Maureen Haney, the depute head at St Fergus's Primary.
"We have had peer mediation for a few years and that has been a big success. It has got pupils solving problems for themselves again. At one stage there were so many adults around, our kids were forgetting how to do that."
Making a Difference: The contribution of the family support service to integrated community schools in Renfrewshire, University of Strathclyde, will be published on March 9
HOW IT WORKS IN RENFREWSHIRE
Stephen McKenzie, Renfrewshire's head of children and families'
services, identifies seven keys to supporting pupils and reducing exclusions:
* management practices and expectations;
* cultural change from disciplinary to supportive;
* in-school support mechanisms and extended support teams;
* high quality discrete additional provision, such as New Dimensions;
* mainstream flexible curriculum provision;
* review and evaluation, with monthly feedback to schools on exclusions;
* integrated working.
"This is all about education, not just making people feel good," says Mr McKenzie. "With a free meal entitlement of over 20 per cent, Renfrewshire is not a leafy suburb, but we do well in terms of SQA attainment."
ONE THING THAT MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Heather Prenticedepute head, pupil support, Gleniffer High:
"A clear and well-structured extended support framework, which everybody - in school and among all the other agencies involved - understands."
Lynne Hollywoodprincipal teacher behaviour support, Gleniffer High:
"Support for staff. You don't need additional funding for things like Framework for Intervention or regular surgeries for teachers to talk about their concerns."
Maureen Haneydepute headteacher,St Fergus's Primary: "Circle time. Children learn to listen, that everyone's views are valuable, and that you can disagree without falling out."
Louise Maherprincipal teacher,St Fergus's Primary: "Framework for Intervention. This is very effective in tackling low-level class behaviour problems. Teachers ask you in confidence to observe a lesson, you complete an environmental checklist and then discuss it."
Margaret McManus home link worker, Renfrewshire Council:
"Working with parents. I work with primary to upper secondary.
I visit all the parents with the class teacher when the kids are coming into P1, then later those whose kids come up at extended support team meetings. Children with problems at school often have problems at home, so working together provides better support."