The founder of Bedford Free School - and its former head - Mark Lehain says his was the first school in town to introduce instant permanent exclusions for students carrying knives.

He says in consequence the school has been seen as partly responsible for Bedford's high rate of exclusions. That rate is double the national average.

But he argues this has been a necessary move to improve safety and behaviour.

"The rising levels of exclusions that we've seen in recent years they're not by accident they were a deliberate government policy to empower heads to do whatever they needed to do to keep their schools safe."

Mark Lehain, Former Head Bedford Free School
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Students at Bedford Free School Credit: ITV

The current head of Bedford Free School, Stuart Lock, believes the strict "routines and structures" are the best way to support students' learning.

Pupils have to observe complete silence between classes and even minor bad behaviour - such as being late to class or not paying full attention - are marked on an achievement card. Too many marks and a student gets detention. But if a student gets through a week with no marks, they can leave school 45 minutes early on a Friday.

Achievement cards are a key part of discipline at Bedford Free School Credit: ITV

"Permanent exclusions do of course have to be a last resort but we do have a responsibility to hundreds of pupils in the building. We cannot allow the learning of hundreds of children to be affected by the behaviour of one or two individuals."

Stuart Lock, Bedford Free School

Although many argue stricter rules lead to more exclusions, staff here argue the opposite is true as it gives vulnerable students a sense of structure and boundaries.

They also say they take in more students who have been excluded from other schools than they exclude students from their own school.

Robert Halfon MP and Mark Lehain talk to ITV Anglia Credit: ITV

Others however, believe that high rates of exclusion are never positive. Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow and the chair of the Education select committee says current rates are at 'epidemic' level.

He advocates a Bill of Rights for excluded children, including independent panels to review decisions to exclude a child, to make sure young peoples' life chances are not damaged.

"It's a major social injustice because there's a postcode lottery of alternative provision, often these children end up in prison. It's becoming almost an epidemic, the amount of children being excluded. And I want every child to be able to climb the education ladder of opportunity and it can be done because there are many many schools that don't exclude nearly as many children"

Robert Halfon MP