Excluding pupils from school makes them more likely to become young offenders, the Scottish Parliament's justice committee has been told.
At a round-table discussion set up by the committee to examine the connection between school exclusions and offending, Alan Staff, head of the charity Apex Scotland, told MSPs that the majority of young people who were excluded had already committed a range of minor offences.
"Excluding them increases the likelihood of their increasing that activity, as it puts them together with other people who have been excluded. The process is almost self-fulfilling; the problem is created that one hoped to manage," said Mr Staff.
Thought should be given to using organisations such as Apex to intervene at an earlier stage of pupils' education, said Jim Thewliss, head of Harris Academy in Dundee and a former president of School Leaders Scotland. The development of parenting skills shoud also be considered, as well as a more appropriate curriculum, he suggested.
"In my city, we now have youngsters coming into nursery school who present the most horrendous challenges to those who want to include them in education," he added.
Behaviour policies were in danger of being undermined by budget and staffing cuts, said EIS president Susan Quinn, citing one secondary school where the "time-out room" was not always staffed, which meant it could not be used.
"The policies exist on paper and the willingness and experience is there in practice, but there are barriers to the policies being used," she said.
Permanent exclusion should also be used much less frequently, argued Professor Pamela Munn of the University of Edinburgh's Moray House School of Education.
Where the education system was getting it wrong in Scotland was in the "persistent patterns of exclusion for children and young people from disadvantaged families, those being looked after by a local authority, those who have learning support needs and so on", she said.
"Although the overall numbers are declining, the persistence of the patterns is very worrying, particularly when we read in the data sets underpinning the exclusion summary tables, that children are being excluded from Primary 1. That raises profound questions about why that is happening," said Professor Munn.
The young people who were the most problematic and most at risk were simply being recycled round the system, said Professor Susan McVie, of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, which has tracked 4,300 young people who started in S1 in the City of Edinburgh since August 1998.
"For a very small minority of vulnerable, disadvantaged young people, we are not getting it right and we are failing those children, who are known to all of us because they are in many systems," she said.
"We can see from the statistics in Edinburgh that the majority of children who are excluded from school end up in the criminal justice system further down the line. One of the statistics from our study showed that if a child had been excluded from school by the age of 12, it increased their odds of imprisonment by age 22 by a factor of four."
WHERE INCLUSION, NOT EXCLUSION, IS THE PRIORITY
The inclusion service in Dunfermline High began in 2007, funded jointly by Apex Scotland and the school.
In 2007-08, it saw a 52 per cent reduction in exclusions compared with a 14 per cent drop across the rest of Fife and 11 per cent across the rest of Scotland.
Since then, it has seen further reductions of 20 per cent in 2008-09 and 32 per cent in 2010-11.
Apex works with pupils at risk of exclusion to increase their awareness of the impact of their behaviour, to help them acknowledge authority figures and to learn strategies to improve their reactions to different conflict situations. It aims to increase participants' confidence and self-esteem while allowing them to take responsibility for their actions.