The Scottish government's policy on school exclusions is not being implemented "effectively or consistently" across the country, MSPs have claimed in a letter to the education secretary, Michael Russell.
Their concerns include evidence that schools have significantly different thresholds for the types of behaviour which lead to an exclusion, and that some schools are, in effect, hiding the problem by ignoring policy and excluding pupils informally.
The MSPs, who sit on the justice committee, were prompted to contact the cabinet secretary after hosting a roundtable discussion on the connection between school exclusions and offending.
During the discussion, academics, parents' representatives, Scotland's children's commissioner and civil servants acknowledged that schools were excluding pupils informally - in other words, sending them home but never officially recording the sanction.
Children with disabilities such as ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and autism were especially likely to be on the receiving end of informal exclusions, they reported.
For the families involved, it happened repeatedly and was "just a way of life". These families were also the "least empowered to deal with or challenge" what was happening, the witnesses said.
School exclusions in Scotland have fallen dramatically in recent years, according to official figures.
From 2006-11 there was a 40 per cent drop - from 44,794 exclusions in the academic year 2006-07 to 26,844 in 2010-11.
Only 2 per cent of pupils - 26,784 - were temporarily excluded in 2010-11 and just 60 pupils were permanently excluded.
Behaviour in Scottish schools on the whole is getting better, with values- based approaches replacing the punitive sanctions of old, according to the Behaviour in Scottish Schools surveys, which have been published every three years since 2006.
Some schools, however, are failing to record exclusion - the ultimate sanction - accurately.
Informal exclusion is "definitely a big issue", said Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.
"The home will be phoned and the mother - it is usually the mother - will be told, `Could you come and get wee Jimmy, because he's not having a very good day?' That happens a lot and it has a serious impact on family life."
Informal exclusions are "very common" and tend to affect parents of children with additional support needs, such as autism or ADHD, says Nico Juetten, the parliamentary officer for Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People.
Maggie Fallon, leader of Education Scotland's positive behaviour team, also acknowledges that there is a problem. "We are aware that there may be some schools that still make phone calls, such as those that Eileen Prior described," she said.
A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "Exclusions should be seen as a last resort, and a short-term measure, with the focus being on longer- term procedures and approaches to address challenging behaviour, preventing the need for exclusion."
There is "a strong argument" that exclusion should be abolished, says Professor Susan McVie who, through her research, has established close links between exclusion from school and criminality.
"All the evidence suggests that young people who are retained in the school system do have much better longer-term outcomes than those who are not," says the University of Edinburgh academic. "Of course, this does require to be properly managed and resourced in order to ensure that the large majority of children in schools are not negatively affected by the presence of a small number of disruptive pupils. However, many schools have come up with imaginative ways of re-engaging disaffected young people and Curriculum for Excellence provides an opportunity to try to do better in Scottish schools."
Professor McVie is co-director of the Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime (see panel, page 15), which is tracking 4,300 children who started S1 in Edinburgh in 1998 and are now aged around 25.
The study, one of the biggest of its kind, found that if a child had been excluded by the age of 12, he or she was four times more likely to be in prison by 22.
According to Professor McVie, the link arises because children who are excluded from school have poorer educational outcomes, tend to be vulnerable and socially disadvantaged and become labelled as problematic.
"These labels become difficult to shrug off, even when the young person does try to desist from an offending lifestyle, and as a result they quickly become associated with a population of `usual suspects' who are under close scrutiny of the criminal justice system," she adds. "As a result, young people who are excluded from school have a much greater chance of being convicted of a crime compared with other young people who offend."
Banning exclusion as a sanction in schools is the "ultimate goal", but first, sufficient levels of support must be put in place, says behaviour expert Professor Pamela Munn, who is also based at the University of Edinburgh and a former dean of education.
Persistent patterns of exclusion are "very worrying"; Scotland is still getting it wrong for children with additional support needs, looked-after children and children from disadvantaged families, she said.
The exclusion rate (per 1,000 pupils) for those who have an additional support need is four times higher than those without; exclusions are more than six times higher for pupils living in the 20 per cent most deprived areas, compared with the 20 per cent least deprived; and for looked-after children the rates of exclusion are almost nine times greater.
Ms Prior told the justice committee that it was "shocking" that exclusions in special schools were so high, as these were environments where specialist care and support should be given.
The rate of exclusion in special schools is 148 pupils per 1,000, compared with 72 per 1,000 in secondary and 11 per 1,000 in primary.
Among pupils with additional support needs, those with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) are the most likely to be excluded, with 3,681 excluded from Scottish secondaries in 2010-11.
There are no simple solutions, insists Professor Munn.
"The behaviour of pupils with SEBD is unlikely to have one single cause and therefore the kinds of interventions required are usually quite complicated and need the input from a variety of agencies - schools, social work, health, police."
Scotland has yet to crack the issue of good interagency working, she says.
"We know quite a lot about why inter-agency support does not work; we know far less about what makes good interagency work effective. We need to pay attention to that," says Professor Munn.
More attention also needs to be paid to the "very detailed and useful statistics out there" on school exclusions found in the supplementary data tables for the Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland publications, she argues.
Professor Munn calls on the Scottish government to publicise these data better, rather than focusing only on "headline figures".
"These figures are not easy to find on the web, but they really need to be interrogated. It would bring information into the public domain about the ages of children being excluded, about the reasons for exclusions, about the number of times people get excluded and for how long.
"The general statistical summary gives an overview, but you can't pick up that 1,500 pupils are excluded four times or more and you don't pick up that children in P1 are being excluded."
Schools and councils could learn a lot from each other about how to develop cultures that are inclusive, she says.
Figures collated by the government show dramatic differences in the levels of exclusion across different authorities. In 2010-11, Dundee City Council excluded 107 pupils per 1,000, while East Renfrewshire excluded just seven per 1,000.
At the same time, Professor Munn's research has shown that schools with very similar pupil populations vary considerably in the number of young people they exclude.
"That whole ethos of a school is very, very important in explaining differences in exclusion patterns - in particular, the attitude of the headteacher and senior management team and how they see their job. Is it to educate everybody and give everybody the best possible start, or is it only to nudge their way up the league tables?"
Professor Munn praises Education Scotland's positive behaviour team for its role in introducing restorative practices to schools and promoting programmes such as Being Cool in School, designed to help children to cope positively with everyday situations, show sensitivity and respect themselves and others.
Budget cuts, however, are a concern, she says.
As part of a pound;70 million package of cuts over the next two years, Glasgow City Council has identified a potential pound;2.5 million saving through doing away with additional support for learning teachers.
And it is not alone. In the coming weeks, other councils are expected to announce equally drastic measures to balance the books.
Budget cuts and reduced staffing levels are making it tougher for schools to cope with challenging pupils, says Susan Quinn, president of the EIS union.
In one school, a "time-out" room for pupils cannot be used because it is not always staffed, she said, while pressures on staffing are also threatening nurture groups and behaviour units.
But improving school exclusion rates is not about money, insists Eileen Prior. She told the justice committee: "When we had lots of money before the recession, that was when we had the biggest problem with exclusion. It is not about money; it is about attitudes and creative thinking."
That sentiment is echoed by Alan Staff, chief executive of Apex Scotland, a charity which supports ex-offenders and those at risk of offending.
A full-time inclusion service can be provided in a school for the cost of a teacher, he says (see below). Fife already has three, while Dundee is interested in introducing an enhanced model which would support challenging pupils day and night.
"On its own, including people does not change the situation; what changes things is what we do with that," Mr Staff says.
Exclusion has been a sanction for a long time but did not become a policy issue until the late 1990s, with the collection of statistics on exclusion commencing in early 2000 in Scotland, says pupil behaviour expert Professor Pamela Munn.
The most recent figures were published in December 2011 for the academic year 2010-11; the next figures are due out in December this year.
Highlights from Summary Statistics for Schools in Scotland 2011 include:
2% The proportion of Scottish pupils excluded from school in 2010-11
60 The number of pupils permanently excluded from Scottish schools
7,287 The number of exclusions in S3, the school year with the highest number of exclusions
143 The number of P1 pupils excluded
79% The proportion of temporary exclusions that lasted three days or less
13% The proportion of temporary exclusions that lasted a week or more
211 The number of exclusions that lasted more than two weeks
63% The proportion of pupils excluded once
47 The number of pupils excluded more than 10 times
78% The proportion of exclusions accounted for by male pupils
INCLUSION - FOR THE PRICE OF A TEACHER
A service to keep challenging youngsters in school can be delivered for the cost of a teacher, says Alan Staff, chief executive of Apex Scotland.
The inclusion service run by Apex Scotland at Dunfermline High in Fife began in 2007 and costs the school about pound;35,000 a year.
This pays for an Apex Scotland employee, usually someone with a youth work background, to be based full-time in the school, where they work with up to 10 S1-4 pupils.
The unit runs two main programmes, taking in pupils who have been excluded as an alternative to sending them home and running a Focus on Your Future programme for pupils at risk of exclusion.
The unit is also reactive; at present it runs a programme for a group of S4 girls indulging in risky behaviour, says Dunfermline High depute head Louise Ramsay, who set up the service with Philip Dunion, Apex Scotland's director of finance and business development.
Ms Ramsay says: "We felt that exclusions were not benefiting anybody. They get an unruly pupil out of class for a short period but that's about it, so we were looking for something more."
Apex aims to help pupils realise the consequences of their actions, develop coping strategies and think about what they want from life.
Focus on Your Future usually runs one afternoon a week and includes a visit to Perth Prison.
"Our organisation works with offenders and those at risk of offending. If you are talking about working with those at risk, you're talking about a young client group, given that most offending starts in the teens. Research shows the best indicator for potential risk of becoming an offender is school exclusion. We believe that working with this group is most cost-effective in terms of the benefits to the community, the school and the young people themselves. It's far better than waiting until they have gone through the courts and the prisons," says Mr Staff.
In 2007-08, exclusions at Dunfermline High halved; by comparison, they dropped by 14 per cent in the rest of Fife and across Scotland by 11 per cent. There were further drops of 20 per cent in 2008-09 and 32 per cent in 2010-11 at the school.
Ms Ramsay says: "We still reserve the right to exclude and still do in certain circumstances, but the rule of thumb is that we are looking to include."
Last year, the service was introduced to two other Fife secondaries - Lochgelly and Kirkland High, with the Robertson Trust, Fairer Scotland Fund and Apex picking up half the cost.
Apex Scotland is now in talks with Dundee City Council about establishing Inclusion Plus in up to four secondaries. If the project goes ahead, it will cost about twice as much as the Fife scheme, but for the first two years the cost will be met by a consortium of funders. The cash comes with conditions and if Inclusion Plus is successful, the council will be expected to fund it in the future.
Mr Staff says: "The Dundee model will be school-based and linked to the curriculum, as it is in Fife, but that will be supported by Skillforce, an organisation which will provide extra-curricular activity, and Includem, which will support the children out of school hours, in their home environment."
The youngsters' domestic lives can be chaotic, he says. Includem will provide support, including family therapy and an emergency contact number which can be called at any time.
ON THE BEHAVIOUR TRAIL: THE EDINBURGH STUDY OF YOUTH TRANSITIONS AND CRIME
People excluded from school multiple times can be found in abundance in Scotland's prisons, says Susan McVie, co-director of a major study analysing offending behaviour among youngsters.
School exclusion figures may be dropping in Scotland, but there is a small disadvantaged group of youngsters for whom we are still not getting it right, warns the University of Edinburgh academic.
The Edinburgh Study of Youth Transitions and Crime tracks almost every child who started S1 in the capital in August 1998 - around 4,300 youngsters.
Its aim is to boost understanding of criminal behaviour. The cohort is now aged about 25.
One of the study's main findings is that if a child is excluded by the age of 12, he or she is four times more likely to be in prison by age 22, making exclusion from school one of the best predictors of later criminal behaviour.
Simply not excluding would not solve the problem, but more positive reinforcement and less punishment are needed, says Professor McVie.
"Schools alone cannot solve the problem as many of these young people have deep-seated needs. It requires a much wider political response to resolve issues around poverty, inequality, community regeneration and family disruption," she says.
But early identification and intervention may not be the answer, she warns. Youngsters who offend are not necessarily known to services at an early age, the Edinburgh study reveals. It found that only 5 per cent of persistent serious offenders at the age of 17 were known to either social workers or the children's hearing system by the age of five. Most of them (68 per cent) still had not come to the attention of these bodies by the age of 15.
Furthermore, early identification when it does happen may not lead to improved outcomes. Around half (46 per cent) of those referred to social work or children's hearings as five-year-olds were convicted by the age of 22.
Professor McVie adds: "Our research has shown that early intervention can be harmful if it is applied inappropriately and disproportionately. The key is to ensure that the intervention they receive is appropriate to their needs and tackles their problems in a way that does not criminalise or stigmatise them."
Original headline: Up in the air: vexed questions over school exclusions