Neil Munro reports on the figures behind the changing line on enforcing school discipline
The first indication of a softening in the Scottish Executive's line on problem pupils in schools came last week from the Education Minister.
Commenting on the first detailed set of pupil exclusion figures, which showed a 4 per cent rise in 1999-2000, Jack McConnell said: "There are times when disruptive pupils have to be removed from the classroom to protect the majority.
"However, I want to see systems in place which make sure these children still get an education. They may be out of the classroom but they must not be out of the system." This implies ministerial acceptance of out-of-school or in-school "sin bins".
Mr McConnell confirmed none the less that there should be no let up in efforts to devise ways of handling disruptive pupils to ensure they are not excluded. This is being backed by the pound;23 million alternatives to exclusion programme over three years. But the Executive makes clear that other initiatives such as the positive ethos drive, anti-bullying strategies, more parental involvement, study support and education action plans will make a contribution as well.
Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, called on Mr McConnell to abandon his "arbitrary and prescriptive" policy of attempting to reduce exclusions by a third, leaving headteachers free to decide on the merits of each case.
The SNP education manifesto published this week (page four) backs a twin-track approach - promoting good practice beyond schools which tackle misbehaviour successfully and ore prosecution of parents whose children truant.
The Government's target of reducing exclusions by a third by 2002 applies only south of the border. An Executive spokesperson said there had never been a specific deadline, more a general objective. The policy remains to get the numbers down but the latest figures show the trend is in the other direction.
There were 38,769 total exclusions from Scottish schools in 1999-2000, compared with 36,856 the previous session. The vast majority were temporary and only 360 pupils were removed completely from the register of their school. Of the temporary cases, 61 per cent were excluded just once with the remainder between two and five or more occasions.
The vast majority of exclusions were from secondary schools, 85 per cent, against 12 per cent from primaries and 3 per cent from special schools. The most common reason was general or persistent disobedience, which accounted for a quarter of cases; 16 per cent were excluded for verbal abuse of staff and 13 per cent for physical abuse of other pupils.
Pupils on free meals, those who had a record of needs and youngsters looked after by a local authority had higher exclusion rates than others.
Mr McConnell says the figures are now more accurate; numbers removed from the register for example, previously known as permanent exclusions, have been revised to be more consistent across authorities.
But while a few authorities record a pupil who has been removed from one school and enrolled in another as a removal, Glasgow still insists that this is a temporary exclusion.