As the Government signals its new attack on the "socially excluded", inconsistencies in school exclusion figures have been exposed once again - this year in the annual school attendance tables. Only seven authorities claim to have excluded any pupil permanently - a grand total of 16 primary pupils and 91 in secondary schools - while Edinburgh and West Lothian even refuse to record temporary exclusions.
Brian Wilson, the Education Minister, asked for a more coherent approach among authorities when he launched the Scottish Office draft guidelines on exclusion in August. Authorities have largely been in favour of doing this but point out that providing more information and monitoring exclusions more closely will cost them time and money.
The need for national guidelines is clear enough from the confusion in this year's figures which mean that Glasgow, the largest education authority and the one with the most challenging problems, is not among the seven to have excluded any pupil permanently.
Critics claim this is because the council and others like it simply recycle pupils from one school to another but can argue these are not completely excluded from the system. Glasgow has, however, resorted to temporary exclusions, equivalent to 8,676 half-days in primary and 71,217 in secondary or 17 half-days for every 100 primary pupils and 254 for every 100 secondary pupils.
Margaret Orr, the city's senior education officer, said the director of education has powers to exclude pupils permanently but has so far not exercised them. "We do have a number of children awaiting placement but we do not regard them as excluded from the education system," she said.
Aberdeen is the only one of the four major cities to have recorded any permanent exclusions, six primary and 35 secondary pupils, underlining the Government's determination to eradicate what it says is "a wide variation in policy and practice across the country" Jon Mager, assistant director of education, says pupils who are excluded sine die, with no date set for their return, count as permanent exclusions. But 25 authorities claim to have no such pupils.
"The first alternative is the second start," Mr Mager states. "If that is not possible, we consider home tuition although we recognise that is not a full education." The new Scottish Office guidelines attempt to improve matters by requiring authorities not to uphold an exclusion by a headteacher if no permanent alternatives are available.
But Aberdeen has complained to the Scottish Office that placing requests and delegated school budgets make it difficult to find alternative places for excluded pupils.
The city considers a suspension of a pupil for three days with a date set for his or her return to be a temporary exclusion. By contrast, Edinburgh and West Lothian are continuing the dispute between the former Lothian Region and the Scottish Office as to what is or is not an exclusion or an absence.
Colin Dalrymple, Edinburgh's head of pupil support, says Edinburgh regards a temporary exclusion as an authorised absence and believes the Scottish Office insistence that it should be regarded as unauthorised is "just crazy".
But the other two Lothian councils, Midlothian and East Lothian, changed the policies they inherited and issued figures for temporary exclusions. Both East and West Lothian admit to permanent exclusions of secondary pupils, but West Lothian is alone with Edinburgh in refusing to record temporary figures.
East Lothian now agrees that temporary exclusions are unauthorised absences, which is why it now appears as one of only two councils with primary pupils in that category; one pupil apiece has been temporarily excluded from two East Lothian schools.
There is also confusion about figures which show numbers of excluded pupils and number of exclusions. North Ayrshire in the Education Minister's constituency reported last week that its schools had excluded 809 secondary pupils last session but there were 1,580 exclusions.
Jim Tulips, the head of education services, says in a report to his committee that the discrepancy results not from most children being excluded twice in the session but from a much smaller number being excluded repeatedly. "This brings into sharp reality the importance of addressing the needs of this small number of very disruptive pupils," he states.