Pamela Munn, who is finalising a Scottish Office-sponsored study into discipline and exclusion, said at a conference last week on promoting positive discipline that individual school policies were the key to exclusions.
"Schools make a difference. We all know that but it is worth emphasising. It matters where you go whether you are excluded or not and whether you are excluded depends on the school ethos," Professor Munn told the conference in Edinburgh, backed by the Scottish Office and Moray House. Headteachers she had interviewed as part of the research project saw exclusion as a last resort. "Nobody liked excluding pupils. They saw it as a failure on their part," she said.
Differences in school policy explained the variation in rates of exclusion and teachers' views about how they saw their job were a key factor, including whether they saw their task as educating all pupils regardless or whether they were only keen to teach pupils interested in their subject.
"The key difference is how teachers think about their job as being a teacher, " Professor Munn said. Curiously, schools that had difficulties in gaining the support of parents tended to hang on to their pupils, while schools that had supportive parents tended to exclude more.
Pupil behaviour had to be put in context, Professor Munn maintained. "What counts as good behaviour first thing on a Monday morning is not the same as last thing on a Friday afternoon," she said. Schools that took a firm line, such as "three strikes and you're out", tended to exclude more.
Professor Munn said the focus of her project was on low-level disruption. Scotland did not have headline grabbing incidents involving violent assaults and brutal bullying. "What really gets teachers down is the day to day drip, drip effect. Talking out of turn, not having books and other materials and avoiding work."
Her project had focused on positive and innovative approaches in dealing with low level disruption. "There is a tremendous amount of good work all over Scotland but people do not tell each other about it," Professor Munn said.
Clear evidence of the sensitive nature of the subject was evidenced by the 96 per cent response rate from teachers to a questionnaire. But Professor Munn said there was no single answer to low level disruption. "If there was, we would have found it by now. There is a whole range of different things schools can do appropriate to their circumstances. We need to share the information, knowledge and expertise we all have," she said.
Tino Ferri, of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, challenged Professor Munn over class sizes. "If you lower the size of classes you will lower the level of disruption," Mr Ferri argued.
But Professor Munn said research showed that lower class sizes would help mainly in primary 1 and 2. "You would have to get class sizes down to 15 or 20 in secondaries before you had big effects coming through, " she stated.
The Government has put in #163;60,000 over the past year to begin "networking" among schools in the four major cities. From April, the budget will rise to #163;100, 000 to cover all 32 councils. "It is not a lot of money but we are not actually trying to promote something new. We are trying to promote networking and good communication among schools," Professor Munn said.
The first schools to benefit are Kincorth Academy and Quarryhill primary in Aberdeen, Govan High and Bannerman High in Glasgow, Tynecastle High in Edinburgh and Ancrum Road primary in Dundee.