Pupils are being excluded illegally by head teachers who are flouting the rules to boost their schools' rankings, according to a major study by the Children's Commissioner.
The Government is being urged to investigate by Dr Maggie Atkinson, who described the report's findings as only "the tip of the iceberg" and "a serious cause for concern". For the first time, head teachers have openly confessed to researchers that they are illegally excluding pupils by sending them home for unrecorded "cooling-off" periods, coercing them into moving to different schools or refusing to allow them to return to school until their parents come in for a meeting.
One head teacher told researchers that he asked parents of problem GCSE candidates to keep them at home from Christmas until they sat their exams in May, "otherwise it's a permanent exclusion". The school recorded the cases as "authorised absences".
Dr Atkinson said: "This may well be the tip of the iceberg. It is unacceptable and it is irresponsible. If you send a child home and you do not know what you are sending them home to, you are in dereliction of your duty. We recommend that the Government undertakes further research to flush it out of the system and put measures in place to stop it."
When a pupil is excluded permanently, schools are supposed to follow a strict procedure that includes sending a letter to the child's parents giving them the chance to appeal. If it is a fixed-term exclusion, homework should be sent out and marked by the school. The school should record the exclusion and count it in its official figures.
The report found that some heads simply did not understand the rules, while others argued they were acting in the best interests of the child by not putting a permanent exclusion on their record. However, some admitted they were attempting to improve their school's standing by getting rid of troublesome pupils without the exclusions appearing in official figures.
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "Inclusion is at the heart of most head teachers' professional pride. Unfortunately, under the relentless pressure of a target-driven culture which cares only about results, not how you achieve them, a very small number fall short of this ideal. Exclusion needs to be a part of the repertoire of sanctions, but it needs to be open and legal."
The number of exclusions has fallen steadily over the past decade. In 2009/10, the most recent year for which figures are available, 5,740 children were excluded permanently from state schools in England and 179,800 were excluded on a fixed-term basis at least once. Almost all fixed-term exclusions (97 per cent) were for less than a week.
The report called for much more to be done to improve parents' and young people's knowledge of exclusion procedures. Many do not know their rights, and so do not know when a school is acting unreasonably, or in some cases illegally, Dr Atkinson warned.
The report said: "Students should only be excluded if they are harming themselves or others, or if they are preventing others from learning," adding that the measure should not be used to deal with "minor infringements of school rules". It said children under seven were too young to be excluded permanently and that there should be "a presumption against" the permanent exclusion of any primary-school pupil.
Boys, certain ethnic groups, children with special needs and pupils from deprived backgrounds were more likely than others to be excluded, the report found. Head teachers' leaders said there was no evidence that illegal exclusions were a widespread problem.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Schools need to be able to exclude disruptive pupils as a last resort. Obviously unofficial exclusions are unlawful. All schools must follow the legal exclusion process."
Steve Williams, 17, Portsmouth
"I was excluded in 2006, in Year Eight. I didn't understand at the time, but now I think a teacher had a personal grudge against me. She worked in the library, and I spent a lot of time there reading. She told my head of year that I violently attacked a girl with my school bag. I was excluded right away. But the day she said I did it fell during an exam week, when many pupils, including me, didn't bring our bags in. My dad and I tried to explain, but I couldn't prove anything. There was no hearing. They clearly didn't believe me. My dad ended up putting me in a different school for years 9 to 11. It didn't work out badly for me, but it could be worse for someone else."
Ce'Nedra browne, 20, Southampton
Her mother, Clair, says: "I feel Ce'Nedra had learning difficulties that weren't diagnosed. When she was 15 she had a row with a teacher and they excluded her, saying she was a danger. She just needed help. It was easier for them to sweep it under the carpet. She's now unemployed."
Jack Roberts, 16, Manchester
"I was excluded for a week after filming my mates in class and uploading the videos to YouTube. The head said the films embarrassed our teacher. It felt like I'd been singled out as there were lots of other videos on the internet made by pupils. But I think I got in more trouble because I was younger and it was easier to exclude me. It was disruptive for my family; my father had to drive up from Dorset for talks with my teachers."