Helen Liddell, the Education Minister, launched the latest initiative at a conference in Glasgow on Monday organised by Children in Scotland, Disability Scotland and Capability Scotland. Mrs Liddell linked the moves, which received a broad welcome, to the Government's policies on inclusion.
She drew a distinction between the physical integration of young people with special needs in mainstream schools and an inclusive approach. The latter involved a departure from "systems, practices and procedures which exclude or marginalise or treat as different individuals or groups of pupils".
But Mrs Liddell acknowledged that attitudes would have to change before inclusion could become a reality. It was possible that pupils, although integrated into mainstream classes, might still be excluded because of prevailing practices and attitudes.
Conversely, Mrs Liddell said, pupils in special schools could still benefit from inclusive approaches even if they were not integrated into mainstream settings.
A warning that the debate on inclusion was not settled and "cannot be put to bed" came from Professor Sheila Riddell, who was appointed in May by the previous Education Minister to chair a Scottish Office advisory committee on severe low incidence needs (complex learning problems compounded by social and medical disabilities).
Professor Riddell, professor of social policy (disability studies) at Glasgow University, said that only 4 per cent of recorded children attended mainstream schools in 1993 compared with 40 per cent now. But she pointed out this was partly due to an overall increase in the number of recorded pupils.
At the same time, Professor Riddell said, this had not led to a decrease in the proportion of pupils in special units. In the case of emotionally and behaviourally disturbed young people, numbers had actually risen. She called for more research to assess the overall quality of educational provision for special needs pupils learning alongside other youngsters.
Professor Riddell said evaluation was also required into how both mainstream and special schools prepare pupils for life after school. In 1996, an Edinburgh school-leavers survey found that 30 per cent of mainstream pupils went into jobs but only 7 per cent from special schools found work; 4 per cent of mainstream but 14 per cent of pupils from special schools had been in continuous unemployment since leaving school.
Professor Riddell feared these problems could be compounded by the Government's New Deal emphasis on "getting people into work". While carrying obvious merit, the policy could make disabled people who were incapable of working feel like second-class citizens.
"We must make sure that New Deal is not targeted at those with the least significant, rather than the most significant, impairments," she commented.
Bronwen Cohen, director of Children in Scotland, renewed her call for "social pedagogues" to be introduced along Swedish lines. These are specialist staff who take a three-year course leading to a broad-based qualification in both care and education.
"It is particularly relevant to the inclusion of children with special needs and, in the context of having classroom assistants and other adults in the classroom, it is useful to look at the quality of the training that is required to become a social pedagogue."
The conference heard from Barbara Martin Korpi, deputy director of Sweden's ministry of education and science, that after the recent fire in a disco in Sweden in which more than 60 young people died it was the social pedagogues in schools that children turned to.
Dr Cohen also found inspiration from another Swedish approach to social inclusion in the symbolic terminology of "children in need of special support" as opposed to special needs.