Dr Carol Hayden, of Portsmouth University, who has just published the first detailed investigation of primary exclusions, said: "What we found was an awful lot of stress. In the majority of cases parents had split up, in the majority pupils had identifiable special educational need. They were not just a load of unruly, naughty kids. There is a real rise in exclusions, and the main reason is stress. All-round stress in schools, stress in families."
Figures compiled by researchers show that at the start of the decade, 378 primary pupils were excluded, compared with 1,445 for the last academic year. Some of this rise, said Dr Hayden, could be attributed to better record-keeping.
In her study, which focused on 265 children who had been permanently excluded, Dr Hayden found 90 per cent were boys, with African-Caribbean children over-represented. Many were poor achievers with low self-esteem and few friends, and were often new to the school, having been in care.
More than three-quarters of the families were involved with one or more of the welfare services, and many of the children had statements of special educational need, usually because of emotional and behavioural difficulties. Schools did not resort to permanent exclusion easily, and most complained that they did not receive enough help from the local education authority or other agencies .
So far, however, the Department for Education and Employment's response has been to tighten disciplinary measures, with new regulations on detentions and exclusions announced, largely in response to the two recent well-publicised cases of threatened strikes.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Union of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, has called for more special schools for children with behavioural problems. The National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations wants an urgent meeting with the DFEE, teacher unions, and social services to discuss changing legislation.
The DFEE has just begun to monitor exclusion figures and the underlying circumstances in each case. Results are expected later in the year.