The government's school behaviour tsar has blasted the Conservatives, labelling the party's claims that heads no longer have the power to exclude bullies from schools as "complete nonsense".
Sir Alan Steer, the Government's adviser on behaviour in schools, has hit out at comments made by Michael Gove, shadow schools secretary, saying he "should know better".
Last week, the Tories released figures stating that just 90 pupils were expelled from school last year, despite nearly half of all 14-year-olds saying they had been victims of bullying over the same period.
The figures also show that in more than two-thirds of local authorities not a single child was excluded for bullying.
The Conservatives say the data reveal a "deliberate" move by the Government since 1997 to make it harder for schools to issue permanent exclusions, which leads to an undermining of heads' authority.
Speaking last week, Mr Gove said: "Bullying makes far too many children's lives a misery. But these figures show that in the vast majority of cases, bullies are returned to the same school as their victims after a short punishment, rather than being expelled.
"The key to tackling bullying is giving teachers the powers they need to crack down on bad behaviour. But the balance of power in the classroom has shifted too far in favour of disruptive pupils."
He added: "That's why we would give schools the power to take a zero-tolerance approach towards serious offences such as bullying and give teachers the tools they need to maintain discipline in the classroom before it spirals out of control."
But Sir Alan described Mr Gove's claims as "complete nonsense". He said the Tories had been "unclear" on any new powers for heads.
He added: "Having investigated the issue of behaviour in schools and being aware of the true facts, it causes me great disquiet that children and schools continue to be presented negatively by those who should know better.
"Where a case of bullying is extremely serious, it will be appropriate for the bully to be removed from the class, or the school. The interests of the victim must be protected. Headteachers already have the powers to exclude such bullies and it is complete nonsense to suggest otherwise."
Sir Alan said there was little to suggest Mr Gove's "zero tolerance" approach had any substance.
"Those who call for new powers to be given to headteachers fail to identify what those powers should be," he said. "It may be that we need to take action to ensure that all parties are aware of the law regarding exclusion and the powers that already exist, but I have found no evidence to support the position taken by Michael Gove."