"We want to flush out those local authorities which allow pupils to drift into limbo," says Gillian Shephard, the Education Secretary, of her plan to force councils to state what they do about difficult pupils.
Under Section 26 of the new Education Bill local education authorities will have to publish and keep up-to-date plans for dealing with pupils with behaviour problems, from arrangements within school to what happens when they are excluded.
But, as more than one local authority spokesman pointed out last week, the Bill contains no reference to the right of such pupils to a full-time education. And, without a great deal more money, authorities would not in any case be able to provide it.
The need for some more rational system than the present hotch-potch is obvious. As The TES revealed last week, more and more schools are resorting to exclusions as the only effective sanction against disruptive pupils. Dr Carl Parsons of Kent University has discovered, on the basis of returns from the vast majority of local authorities, that exclusions have risen by 8 per cent in 1995-96 to a total of 13,400 children. He describes the plight of these children - some left with no more than a few hours' home tuition a week - as "a source of professional and political shame".
As the number of exclusions rises, so does the number of statements of special educational needs (from 128,000 in 1985 to 229,000 in 1996), although it is hard to discover how many of those are for children with behaviour difficulties as the Department for Education and Employment does not keep figures for the different kinds of need. And some local education authorities do not consider children with emotional and behavioural difficulties within the special needs framework. This means that schools miss out on the financial and professional help provided as part of the early stages of "statementing" and may go straight to the crisis of exclusion when trouble flares up.
Concern with catching trouble early and preventing exclusions has led headteachers in Kent to back the introduction of a countywide behaviour support system. Based on existing pupil referral units in each of the county's six areas, the network consists of staff with expertise in the field of behaviour problems who are working alongside teachers in schools, mostly with individual pupils where the school's resources are wearing thin.
The county has taken on 25 extra teachers to staff the network. In addition, each team within the network has its own educational welfare officer, educational psychologist and youth worker. "The bit we're most proud of is the inter-disciplinary approach," says Maggie Gregory, the county commissioner for pupil and student services.
Heads are so keen to have the help that all the local authority schools, including the high-performing grammar schools with little need of it, have volunteered to "top-slice" their budgets to pay half the Pounds 1.25 million cost of the extra staff. Talks with grant-maintained schools will take place early next month to decide how they can "buy in" to the network.
Already there are signs that the initiative, introduced in April and fully operational since September, is working. Permanent exclusions, which rose sharply between 1994-95 and 1995-96 (from 365 to 439 in secondary schools) were down in the first two months of this academic year.
Kent's behaviour support system builds on what Maggie Gregory describes as "pockets of good practice" in the county. Some pupil referral units were already doing preventative work; others were bogged down simply dealing with excluded children or children with statements of special need.
Kent children who are excluded from school may get full-time help, such as some nearing school-leaving age in the Medway towns who are on combined academic and work experience courses. Most excluded primary-age children (about 80 a year) can be found a place in another primary school. Some children get statements of special need and go to a special school. Most secondary and some primary-age children have half-time places at their nearest PRU. But some get only three hours' home tuition a week.
"We'd like all children to have full-time places in a PRU," says Maggie Gregory, "but then we couldn't afford the preventative work which the heads think is most important."
As well as pupils who get only a few hours' home tuition, there are others in limbo: those whose parents have been quietly summoned by the head and advised to take their child elsewhere. Never formally excluded, such children may spend six months trailing around being rejected by school after school.
Maggie Gregory is worried by the proposal in the Bill to allow schools to "lump together" exclusion periods of 15 days into a single 45-day period. "If that's 45 days in a school year, that could be the best part of the summer term," she says. "Then the child could return in September for one week and then be excluded for the rest of that term. And experience shows that, once a child has been out of school for two terms, it's very difficult to get them back in."