Vulnerable children are frequently let down by and can become isolated from mainstream schooling, according to a blunt HMIE report.
Some young people with social, emotional and behavioural needs (SEBN) do not enjoy the specialist help or positive relationships they need. Curricular reform has not had the desired impact, while attainment is not as high as it should be.
Senior chief inspector Bill Maxwell, in a hard-hitting foreword to the report, pointedly entitled Out of site, out of mind, says Scottish education is found most wanting when it comes to young people with challenging behaviour. This is despite the fact that, on paper, authorities have a "strong commitment" to inclusion, "clear guidance" on provision and "well-established" approaches to early intervention.
The review drew on inspections, sample visits, and a survey sent to 26 authorities to which fewer than half replied. A "substantial minority" of authorities still had work to do to support vulnerable young people's needs: "promising advice on strategic approaches" was undermined by inconsistent implementation.
Although "good use" is made of bases in most schools, some "did not help young people to develop positive attitudes to their learning or improve their behaviour".
Bases were used as "cooling-off areas" staffed by senior management or subject teachers rather than specialists. Here, staff "rarely interacted positively with young people", while teachers were "too ready to exclude young people from class and used these facilities disproportionately".
Some on-site bases, which exist in about 25 per cent of mainstream secondarie, had "insufficient links with other classes and departments" and, in "a substantial minority" of instances, "staff did not have clear targets to help young people make good progress in the curriculum".
In bases and schools where leadership was "very good", young people made "good progress in modifying behaviour and learning". But those with major weaknesses had "not received sufficient support or challenge from the education authorities".
There were some good responses to Curriculum for Excellence. But schools in general were not making enough use of it, and "overall quality of attainment and improvements in performance was good or better in only a minority of bases and schools".
Mainstream schools showed a "lack of active engagement" with off-site bases, which was a common weakness: few staff visited to monitor pupils' progress. As a result, there were not enough opportunities for pupils to return to the mainstream, especially in upper secondary.
Children in Scotland's Jonathan Sher said the report "underscores the uncomfortable reality that properly responding to children having serious social, emotional and behavioural difficulties remains the exception, rather than the rule".
But its examples of good practice showed progress could be made.
Tom Watson, director of Fairbridge in Scotland, a charity supporting people aged 13 to 25, said: "Schools must be aware of the circumstances young people face and be sensitive to their impact on classroom behaviour, or they will alienate young people from formal education."
Carolyn Finlayson, manager of Enquire, the additional-support-for-learning advice and information service, said calls from parents and carers complained about the frequent exclusion of troubled youngsters, insufficient communication between mainstream schools and special bases, and lack of involvement in decision-making.