Announcing last week's landmark white paper, education secretary Michael Gove was keen to show he was empowering teachers and tackling poor discipline. But his plans to make schools responsible for the most unruly pupils, even after they have been excluded, will do the opposite, heads have warned.
According to critics, instead of having the power to remove disruptive pupils, heads will now be forced to keep them in school. Central to the concerns are Government plans that will mean schools have to find alternative places for pupils that they permanently exclude, either in other schools or in pupil referral units (PRUs).
The excluding school will have to pay for that provision, and the pupil's subsequent exam results will still count towards their place in performance league tables.
These changes will make it "very difficult" for schools to sever their links with the worst-behaved children, opponents have warned.
The extra costs often associated with sending pupils to PRUs will also result in a financial penalty to schools - leaving them with a choice between excluding badly behaved pupils or employing teachers, according to the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).
The Department for Education says the changes will stop any "abuse" of permanent exclusions and "create a strong incentive for schools to avoid exclusion where possible, and ensure that where it does happen it is appropriate and pupils receive good alternative provision".
The white paper added: "We believe this change of approach could see much improved outcomes for some of our most vulnerable children... However, we recognise that this is a big step. So we will begin by working with local authorities and headteachers to test the approach, identify issues and barriers, develop solutions and ensure that the incentives work effectively."
Plans to abolish exclusion appeal panels have also been watered down and will now remain, although panels will not be able to order reinstatement to a school for pupils who have committed "a serious offence".
The ASCL and heads' union the NAHT campaigned against abolishing independent appeals panels, but they have "serious concerns" about schools retaining responsibility for excluded pupils.
ASCL general secretary Brian Lightman said the reforms will be "problematic for schools".
"I think that this could impose a deterrent on schools to exclude pupils, which would have detrimental effects on their ability to maintain discipline," he said. "A school in tight financial circumstances having to decide between paying for an excluded pupil's continuing education and employing, say, a maths teacher would face a very difficult quandary.
"Schools do not take the decision to exclude pupils lightly but it is sometimes unavoidable. The ability to impose financial penalties contradicts the stated Coalition policy of supporting schools in maintaining good discipline, as it will hinder the use of exclusion, especially in times of financial constraint.
"Behaviour partnerships have been a successful model under which schools can work in collaboration to place pupils in alternative provision so that they can continue their education. The Government should seek to support their continuation."
NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby said: "This is going to constrain heads - these are very worrying proposals and real traps. It's making them accountable for something they won't have any control over. A large part of the reason children are excluded is if the school doesn't have the specialist services to help them."
Joan McVittie, head of Woodside High School in Tottenham, north London, said: "These changes will create a nightmare for heads. These pupils need specialist behaviour support that's not found in schools. They really need the services of a PRU and that type of provision doesn't come cheap."
Education lawyer Dai Durbridge, of law firm Browne Jacobson, said heads will now find it "practically and morally" difficult to exclude. "They will never be able to get rid of their responsibilities. The changes to appeal panels will also deter parents from taking action. They won't get the result they want from them, and the cost of using a judicial review will be prohibitive."
Samantha Murray, head of policy and information at the Advisory Centre for Education, a service which provides legal help for parents, also said schools would now "think twice" about excluding.
"If teachers are still responsible for the child, and their results show up on the school's record, then they are not likely to pass that pupil on to somewhere else," she said. "It won't be out of their hands, and they will decide there will be more success if they put in an action plan rather than letting another school get involved."
Mr Gove has said that the exclusion appeals process can become "unduly adversarial, rather than encouraging schools and parents to continue to work together in the interests of the child".
In future, panels will only be able to "request" that governors reconsider their decision. If the hearing finds in favour of the child, the school will have to contribute to the cost of additional support for them.
Ms Murray said the changes to appeals panels leave them "powerless". "Many parents want reinstatement, particularly if it's at a critical point in the child's education or if the exclusion was a one off-incident rather than a complete breakdown in the relationship between the pupil and teachers," she said.
"Instead we will see more appeals to governing bodies, but that won't be a level playing field because some governors are more independent than others and children receive different treatment in different schools. This takes away choice and undermines the independent appeals panels."
Sir Alan Steer, the last government's "behaviour tsar" said it was not the case that many children were reinstated in schools anyway.
"I have made recommendations in reports, and I stand by them, that we need to ensure that appeal panels are of quality," he said. "There should be a training element and people, where they can, should come from the same sector. We should do everything that we can to ensure that those appeals panels are of a decent quality."
The white paper on exclusions
The paper's main proposals on permanent exclusions are:
- permanently excluded pupils will remain the responsibility of their original school;
- heads must find alternative provision for excluded pupils and pay for their ongoing education;
- excluded pupils' subsequent results will continue to count in their original schools' league tables;
- exclusion appeals panels will be retained, but the worst-behaving pupils will not be readmitted to schools.