Pupil referral unit (PRU) rolls have nearly doubled in 11 years even though the number of permanent exclusions has almost halved during the same period, figures published this week reveal.
The seeming discrepancy has been highlighted in a report by think-tank Civitas, which suggests this "secret garden" of students can be explained by the shift away from formal exclusions towards "referrals" under the last government.
Referrals allow pupils with behaviour problems to remain registered at mainstream schools even though they are educated elsewhere.
Civitas is calling for ministers to accelerate the trend by banning permanent exclusions altogether and introducing a new system which would improve the rights of disruptive pupils.
It says schools should be given extra funds to buy off-site provision for pupils they want to remove. But the responsibility for the quality of their education - in PRUs or other alternative provision - would remain with the referring school.
"It should not be possible for the pupil to be removed from the school roll, except in the case of a transfer to another school initiated by the parents of a child," the report said.
But the idea has been given a hostile reception by heads.
Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said: "There are some students whose behaviour is so disruptive that it prevents other pupils from working in a school and they need to be removed for the good of the rest of the school community.
"But schools can't be held accountable for things over which they have no control. If they are not educating that child, then it is quite unreasonable for them to be held accountable for what is going on with that pupil in alternative provision."
Civitas wants to go even further and give disruptive pupils the right to choose what form of education they receive once they are removed from mainstream schooling.
It argues that banning permanent exclusions would stop "unscrupulous" heads from threatening the sanction if parents do not agree to "managed moves" to other schools, which are supposed to be voluntary.
The think-tank says that disruptive pupils currently "lack any rights at all". Even if a pupil wins an appeal against an exclusion, a school can still isolate them internally.
According to current European human rights case law, says Civitas, pupils need only be provided with "something resembling education", "regardless of its quality".
The Civitas report quotes Government statistics showing that the number of students in PRUs rose from 8,200 in 199798, when figures were first regularly collected, to 15,700 in 200809, the latest figures available. But in the same period the number of permanent exclusions dropped from 12,298 to 6,550.
The increase in the number of students referred to PRUs is the tip of an iceberg, Civitas suggests, noting that Government figures from January showed 19,170 pupils attending independently run alternative provision.
The prevalence of independent centres had "changed dramatically", one local authority official told Civitas. "Over the last five years it has become massive."
A New Secret Garden? Alternative Provision, Exclusion and Children's Rights by Tom Ogg with Emily Kaill
WHAT CIVITAS WANTS
BAN THE BANS
- Ban permanent exclusions.
- Fund schools to buy off-site provision for disruptive pupils and make them responsible for its standards of quality.
- Give disruptive pupils the right to choose the form of alternative education they receive.