The Education Secretary is facing calls for more support to tackle distressed and problematic pupil behaviour after figures showed the percentage of exclusions due to physical assault, fighting and threats of violence is rising.

Growing pressure on Shirley-Anne Somerville also comes amid union warnings of a post-lockdown increase in incidents of aggression, particularly among P1-2 children.

A policy of using exclusions only in the most serious circumstances and the roll-out of dedicated, in-school support or “nurture” units have helped slash the overall totals across Scotland in recent years.

Figures for the state sector show that, in 2020/21, just one learner was “removed from the register”, which is when an excluded individual does not return to their original school and is instead taught elsewhere. This is down from 3 in 2018/19 and 60 in 2010/11. The 2020/21 session also saw 8,322 cases of temporary exclusion compared with nearly 15,000 in 2018/19 and 26,784 in 2010/11.

READ MORE: Pupil exclusion rates in Scotland plunge

Education officials have stressed the fall in 2020/21 can be partly attributed to the Covid pandemic, which saw national and local school closures, as well as high rates of pupil absence.

However, additional analysis of “combined” data covering learners and staff indicates the proportion resulting from physical violence and fighting increased by just over 3 per cent between 2018/19 and 2020/21. It has also risen from 45.6% in 2016/17.

A little over 51% of known exclusions in 2020/21 (4,288 cases) were due to fighting, physical assault, physical assault using a weapon or improvised weapon, or the threat of physical violence with or without a weapon. The percentage linked to fighting jumped from 9.4% to 13.9% between 2016/17 and 2020/21.

Union bosses have said the problem will require a targeted response. They also highlighted a recent EIS survey of members in Aberdeen, which found nearly half were considering quitting after suffering “high levels” of physical and verbal abuse. Statistics for the 2020/21 session show 1,153 cases of exclusion were as a result of physical assault or threats of violence specifically against staff.

EIS leaders said last year that incidents of pupil violence were increasing. They revealed one member in the primary sector suffered a broken jaw and damage to an eye socket after being kicked in the face by a pupil. Another individual in a different school was punched by a P2 child and had a tooth knocked out.

The Herald: Larry Flanagan said additional resources for specialist pupil support would be needed.Larry Flanagan said additional resources for specialist pupil support would be needed.

Larry Flanagan, EIS general secretary, said: “Members are reporting increased levels of distressed behaviour from pupils, some quite young, which seems to be rooted in their experience of the pandemic and which can be highly disruptive to teaching and learning.

"There is an urgent need to increase the specialised staffing necessary to support pupils with additional needs around behaviour, in order that they as individuals are assisted but also to ensure that other pupils can continue with their learning.”

Eileen Prior, executive director of parents' organisation Connect, said: "The safety of staff and pupils is paramount, so we must make sure that schools and local authorities have the resources and skills to do everything they can to support young people to self-regulate their behaviour. This also means providing training, safe spaces and tailored support for young people who struggle to do so.

"Bald statistics shed no light on what these figures are telling us. What we do know, however, is that young people have been under huge pressure over the last two years and we have what some experts are describing as a mental health crisis. For children and young people, behaviour is communication. We can only surmise how these stresses are reflected in the statistics published here."

READ MORE: Rise in violent pupil behaviour and unexplained absences

A Government spokeswoman said: “We advocate an approach for schools and local authorities to work with pupils on the underlying reasons behind inappropriate behaviour. We are supporting a number of programmes to promote positive relationships and tackle indiscipline, abuse and violence.

“We have been clear with schools and local authorities that exclusion should be the last resort. Our guidance sets out that there are additional factors that need to be considered when a child or young person has a disability or an additional support need.

"The guidance places greater importance on preventative approaches, including good behaviour management.”