Experts are calling for an end to exclusions in Scottish schools in light of new evidence suggesting that banning pupils from class increases the risk of them leaving school early and going on to serve time in prison when they are older.
Tam Baillie, the commissioner for children and young people in Scotland, backed demands to abolish exclusions after new analysis showed a significant link between exclusions and vulnerable pupils leaving school early and falling into crime.
The call coincides with the announcement of a new campaign led by the charity Enable to tackle exclusions of pupils with learning disabilities. Voluntary organisations fear the figures are rising - despite a dramatic fall in overall exclusions - because teaching staff cannot cope with more complex needs.
Speaking to TESS at a conference in Edinburgh on young offenders, Mr Baillie said: "Every child has the right to an education. I would like to see a Scotland without any exclusions if we have enough other support in place."
The conference heard that new data showed young offenders were "by far the most likely" to leave school early after being excluded, with about one in five early leavers having been barred from classes in S3 or S4. Only 3 per cent of pupils who had been excluded stayed until S5.
The findings were from an ongoing long-term study tracking more than 4,000 young people who started high school in Edinburgh in 1998. Results last year revealed that students who had been excluded from school by the age of 12 were four times more likely to have been imprisoned by the time they were 24.
Susan McVie, leader of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime, told delegates: "Let's not talk about exclusions any more. Let's just ban exclusions altogether."
Speaking to TESS, she said: "We know that rates of exclusion have come down very significantly but they are still concentrated on the most vulnerable children. I think we should start with a blanket ban in primary years and work towards a blanket ban in secondaries as well."
Statistics show that exclusions almost halved after a Scottish government drive to reduce the practice, from 44,794 in 2006-7 to 21,955 in 2012-13. However, disability charity Enable said that exclusion of pupils with additional support needs remained at least three times higher than the overall rate.
Chief executive Peter Scott added: "Anecdotally, our members tell us that their children are also excluded informally, which is not officially recorded, suggesting that the rate could be increasing."
In 2009-10, official figures showed that students with a disability were almost twice as likely to be excluded from school as those without.
However, many leaders argue that exclusions are a necessary sanction for some pupils.
Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, said: "Schools are in a better place than they have possibly ever been in terms of [alternative] strategies for behaviour management and the evidence stacks up.
"It's absolutely true that the more a youngster is excluded it builds up a whole catalogue of problems, which can finish up in prison. But a blanket ban on exclusions would not be helpful at all. There is still a need sometimes for a sanction to take the heat out of a situation. A lot of problems need that kind of breathing space so that normality can be restored as soon as possible."
Reasons for exclusions range from general disobedience to being physically abusive or taking drugs. The vast majority of excluded pupils are barred for less than a week. The Scottish government said its policy of reducing exclusions was working and it had "no intention" of banning the sanction.