THE latest school exclusion figures were issued this week - and there are signs that ministers are distancing themselves from their long-standing and controversial target to reduce by a third the number of days lost each year through exclusions and truancy.
This remains one of the Scottish Executive's "milestones" to measure its progress in achieving social justice but one source described it as "a bit of a millstone".
Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, welcomed the 3 per cent decrease in exclusion cases from 38,656 to 37,442 in the 2001-02 school year. Last year there was a fall of 0.3 per cent and an increase of 4 per cent the year before that. The number of pupils temporarily excluded, some more than once, was 20,596 which represented just 3 per cent of rolls.
Ms Jamieson repeated her predecessors' calls for exclusions to be minimised but gave surprisingly strong support to those who believe it is an essential sanction. "Excluding a child from school can often lead to a life of exclusion and the decision must not be taken lightly. But headteachers must be able to take that step as a last resort if they feel it is the only answer.
"So while I welcome the decrease in exclusions and the fact that 99 per cent of them were temporary, I recognise that we must continue our efforts to support teachers and protect the vast majority of children from the disruptive behaviour of the minority."
The Executive has continued to pour considerable sums into various behaviour strategies, including pound;26 million to help schools develop alternatives to exclusion and pound;23 million so far to implement its discipline action plan.
But the exclusion rate shows no signs of improving. The overall figure has remained stubbornly fixed at 51 per 1,000 pupils for the past three years, with the same range - from double the average in authorities with large pockets of deprivation to a virtually invisible problem in the islands.
West Dunbartonshire's figure of 103 exclusions for every 1,000 pupils contrasts with just two in Shetland.
The Executive may also have problems explaining the decrease in exclusions at a time when the figures on violence against school staff published last month showed a considerable increase.
In its defence, it argues that permanent exclusions for the most aggressive pupils did rise last year by 3 per cent from 322 to 332.