The new measures announced on Monday reflect concern about the dramatic rise in the number of pupils being expelled from school, the quality and quantity of education available in pupil referral units after expulsion, and a more general public anxiety about violent pupils heightened by the murder of headteacher Philip Lawrence late last year.
"It is a tragedy that it takes the murder of a headteacher to trigger this scheme," said Peter Smith, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers. "What a pity no action was taken on the Elton report, which has just been gathering dust." The Elton report on discipline in schools was published in 1989 and made more than 130 recommendations, many proposing just the sort of measures announced by the Government this week.
The new plans are part of a review of discipline and standards, and were first mooted by Gillian Shephard last September. On Monday, education minister Robin Squire announced that Pounds 3.7 million would be made available through GEST (grants for education support and training) for 62 pilot projects in 43 local authorities. This amounts to 60 per cent of the total cost for one year - local education authorities will have to find the rest.
The total cost of the projects, which will run for three years, will be around Pounds 18 million, according to the Department for Education and Employment.
The money will pay for school-based centres for pupils "at risk of exclusion", "behaviour support teams" which schools can call in to help with difficult pupils, and the secondment of mainstream teachers to pupil referral units in order to raise standards there and give the teachers experience in "behaviour management".
Nigel de Gruchy, whose union, the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, has traditionally been the most vociferous in calling for action on violent behaviour in class, said he had reservations about in-school centres.
"They are fine for ordinary miscreants, but schools need to make a strong statement about seriously disruptive or violent behaviour, and they can't do this by sending the kids to a Nissen hut in the playground," he said. As for the support teams, it would depend who was staffing them: "People with proven experience in the field would be fine, trendy theorists would not."
Doug McAvoy, of the National Union of Teachers, welcomed the plans but said that the Government was re-inventing the wheel - LEAs used to provide teams to deal with problem pupils before local management of schools depleted central services, he said.
The DFEE recorded just 2,910 permanent exclusions in 1990-91; last year the number had risen to 12,458. Last summer, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, caused a rumpus when he said that most street criminals were young black people who had been excluded from school. The DFEE hopes the new units will serve three purposes: keeping the problem pupils off the streets, preventing them from disrupting the education of others, and ensuring that they continue working on the national curriculum while their particular needs are addressed.
The DFEE does not specify how units will be staffed, but a spokeswoman for North Tyneside, one of the authorities piloting the scheme, said that their centre would be run by a mixture of teachers, welfare officers and educational psychologists (all new posts) and that the same team would carry out the peripatetic "behaviour support" work.
Last December, the Office for Standards in Education published a damning report on standards in pupil referral units: a combination of weak, scanty teaching and poor planning by education authorities made the re-integration of pupils into mainstream schools "difficult or impossible", inspectors found.
Different theories exist on why exclusions are rising. Some, including Nigel de Gruchy, attribute the phenomenon to the rise of market forces in education, with headteachers eager to get rid of pupils who drag league table scores down, others blame increasing poverty and social disintegration.
Carl Parsons, the researcher from Canterbury Christchurch college who carried out the most recent exclusions survey for the DFEE, says the real reason is that schools are increasingly aware that disruptive pupils consume an inordinate amount of time and money, while teachers are increasingly short of both. "Until we accept these children into the special needs arena, the problems will remain," he says.