Pupil exclusion rates across Scotland have plummeted as dedicated support and “nurture” units help keep misbehaving youngsters in school.

But ministers face warnings that “patterns of inequality” remain, with those recorded as having additional support needs (ASN) or living in deprivation much more likely to be barred from education premises.

Scottish Government figures for the state sector show that, in 2020/21, only 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. Overall, the temporary exclusion rate plunged from 39.9 per 1,000 pupils to 11.9 between 2010/11 and 2020/21.

While decreases between 2018/19 and 2020/21 are partly attributable to learners spending less time in school due to the pandemic, clear evidence of a sustained, longer-term reduction will be welcomed by education leaders.

Declining exclusion rates previously sparked claims that pupil misbehaviour and indiscipline were being “covered up”. However, research shows those removed from school are less likely to progress to tertiary education and high-quality employment. They are also at greater risk of becoming involved in crime, either as an offender or victim.

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Figures for England, while also falling, remain high. Schools there recorded 5,057 permanent exclusions and 310,733 suspensions in 2019/20.

Experts say the trend in Scotland is due to a range of factors, including enhanced teacher understanding of trauma and mental health, robustly maintained professional standards, and collaborative policy-making.

Recent years have also seen new approaches developed for tackling difficult or aggressive pupil behaviour.

Glasgow Council, for example, has moved decisively away from pupil referral units, instead creating “enhanced nurture” facilities that are located onsite in mainstream schools. Exclusion is used only in extreme circumstances, with teachers given specialist training so they are better able to assist distressed children and young people. The strategy has won UK-wide praise, particularly in London.

Professor Gillean McCluskey, co-director of research and the research excellence framework co-ordinator at Edinburgh University’s Moray House School of Education and Sport, said similar initiatives could be found across Scotland.

“Most schools will talk about the importance of nurturing principles,” she added. “And when I talk to my English colleagues about that there’s a blank look.”

HeraldScotland: Many Scottish schools have overhauled their approach to managing pupil misbehaviour.Many Scottish schools have overhauled their approach to managing pupil misbehaviour.

But, while acknowledging “huge success” in reducing the national figures, she warned the trend was not equally distributed.

The exclusion rate for those with additional support needs due to factors including autism, experience of trauma or abuse, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder was 25.5 per 1,000 pupils in 2020/21. This was almost five times that recorded for learners without such needs.

Statistics also show the rate among those living in the 20% of areas associated with most deprivation was 18.8 – nearly four times that recorded for those in the least deprived areas. However, the difference, has narrowed since 2016/17.

Meanwhile, male pupils, with a rate of 18.2, were more than three times as likely as their female peers to be removed from school.

Prof McCluskey said poor levels of resourcing and support were increasing the risk of unmet needs producing distressed or difficult behaviour that might lead to an exclusion.

She added: “It’s one of the things that concerns me most – that we’ve managed to reduce these exclusions, dramatically, and with huge success over the last ten years, but the patterns of inequality are exactly the same.”

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Prof McCluskey - who is also involved in Excluded Lives, a UK-wide project looking at formal, informal and illegal exclusions – stressed the issue was not Scotland-specific. “Schools don’t feel like they can do the job that they want to do,” she said. “And we know, for instance, the things that teachers will say again and again, particularly around mental health, is that getting access to support is just so difficult.

“So, the partner agencies – I’m not blaming them, I’m saying they’re also under-resourced, mental health in particular, a really big issue, but social work as well - all these [are] under-resourced, under-recruiting, they’re recruiting poorly, they’re not retaining staff. There are big issues in the ways in which we can do what we can within education. So the supports aren’t there.

“I think there are many, many teachers trying to do a really good job but we have serious issues, which require a coordinated, resourced response.”

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “Our national policy makes it clear that exclusion from school should always be a last resort and that there is a need to consider the individual circumstances of certain groups of children.

“These include those with a disability; looked after children and young people; children and young people from the most deprived areas and those with additional support needs, particularly if those additional support needs are social, emotional or behavioural.”