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Glimmer of hope;Leading Article;Opinion

This morning, there are at least 400 extra pupils at school desks than might have been predicted a couple of years ago. They are the human faces of a small but significant statistic: the 3 per cent drop in expulsions from school last year.

That still means 12,300 children consigned to society's scrapheap long before adulthood. Boys, black ethnic minorities, children in care and those with statements are still the biggest casualties.

Three per cent may seem no more than the faintest glimmer at the end of the tunnel. But it is the first halt in the rise of permanent exclusions - fuelled by competition between schools - since national records began in 1994.

Ministers are confident a new trend has begun. They spent pound;22 million last academic year combating truancy and exclusion, and have now embarked on a three-year, pound;500m campaign. The improvement rate must accelerate markedly for the Government to meet its target of no more than 8,400 expulsions a year by July 2003. Even so, such small beginnings have already given a priceless second chance to 400 citizens of the 21st century.

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