The news has prompted suspicions that the rapidly increasing size of the problem is proving embarrassing for ministers. Civil servants are blaming problems of definition - schools record expulsions and suspensions in widely different ways - for casting doubt on the validity of the findings.
The department has also admitted that the school inspectors' annual survey of the state of schools may not be published this year. For the past four years Her Majesty's Inspectorate, which is being replaced by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), has criticised the standard of lessons and commented on inadequate resources.
There is little doubt among teachers, local authorities and special needs charities that more children are being excluded from schools. A survey by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) showed expulsions have doubled in some urban areas over the past year. The National Union of Teachers published figures this summer showing that expulsions and suspensions had risen by one- fifth in the past year, and estimated that 25,000 children are being barred from schools in England and Wales.
Disruptive pupils tie up staff resources, inflate a school's truancy figures which now have to be published and may affect its standing in an examination league table. Once excluded, pupils become the responsibility of the local education authority.
Alan Parker, the association's assistant secretary, said: 'The advent of league tables and the need for schools to present a positive image of themselves - including being tough on discipline - are encouraging heads faced with problem children to pass the buck.'
Mainstream schools are also being asked to cope with children who would previously have gone to special schools, while local authority budgets for educational psychologists, special units and home tuition have been cut.
However, a Secondary Heads' Association survey of 800 secondary schools found that exclusion rates were still relatively low: 2.4 per cent of pupils in local authority schools and lower for grant-maintained and independent schools.
The response from education ministers whenever the issue of exclusions has been raised in the past two years has been to refer to the department's forthcoming survey. But a conference of special needs charities was told that the department now had doubts about the validity of the data and the survey might never be published.
'Because we haven't got the results and because we are uncertain what steps would usefully be taken, there aren't any proposals,' a senior civil servant was reported as saying.
A department spokeswoman said the survey would not now be completed until Christmas. Ministers would decide then whether or not to publish the results.Reuse content