Austerity measures are forcing local authorities to "ration" funding for disabled students in Scottish schools, leading academics have warned.
There has been "a huge expansion" in the number of children categorised as having additional support needs (ASN) but "a significant decrease" in those with plans that guarantee them help, according to Sheila Riddell, professor of inclusion and diversity at the University of Edinburgh and director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity.
Meanwhile, Tam Baillie, Scotland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, has warned that cuts are leading to a "real danger" of disabled children missing out on the support they are entitled to by law.
Scottish government statistics showed that students with ASN, far from being better supported in school, were almost five times more likely to be excluded, Professor Riddell told a conference in Edinburgh this week.
"Some say it does not matter what plan you have if needs are met, but having a coordinated support plan makes local authorities write down what the child's needs are and what is going to be provided and what the different agencies are going to do," she said. "It also entitles the family to regular reviews and access to the additional support needs tribunal. If you don't have a coordinated support plan it's hard to contest what is being provided."
Academic research commissioned by Mr Baillie, entitled It Always Comes Down to Money, found that parents of disabled children reported reduced staffing levels in schools. This resulted in inadequate physical care and decreased learning support for their children.
Parents also noted that instead of using coordinated support plans, "many professionals" were "using forms that mean they are not committed to provide anything any more". Voluntary organisations, meanwhile, said that some authorities were "choosing not to set up coordinated support plans that carry statutory obligations".
Mr Baillie said: "There is evidence of cuts in local authority budgets leading to reductions in services alongside tighter eligibility criteria, support being removed without review or reassessment, and a lack of consultation.
"In many cases, the changes have resulted in stress, disappointment and frustration for disabled children, young people and their families."
Coordinated support plans were introduced in 2005 and replaced the "record of needs". Professor Riddell highlighted the fact that about 2 per cent of Scottish students had had a record of needs and it was anticipated, at the time they were introduced, that 1 per cent would have the new support plans.
Government figures from 2011 show that across Scotland an average of just 0.5 per cent of school children have coordinated support plans. This varies from 0.05 per cent of the student population in West Dunbartonshire to 1.3 per cent in Shetland.
Coordinated support plans were accompanied by the introduction of the new, broader category of ASN. This included children with a mental or physical disability, those living in care or in extreme poverty and those without English as a first language.
In 2004, 4.5 per cent of students in Scotland were classified as having ASN but by last year almost a fifth (17.5 per cent) of children were in that category, according to Scottish government statistics.
The proportion of children classed as having social, emotional and behavioural difficulties, in particular, had experienced "a marked increase" in recent years, Professor Riddell said. The numbers have almost trebled in just four years, from 12 per 1,000 students in 2008 to 35 per 1,000 in 2011.
However, Professor Riddell warned against laying all the blame for failure to provide adequate resources to support ASN children at the door of Scottish councils.
"It is easy to blame local authorities but we have to be careful because they are having to work with a huge reduction in resources," she said. "We know that local authorities are not horrible individuals but they can't provide the resources they are required to under statute."
Douglas Chapman, a Fife councillor and education, children and young people spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, said: "We are ready to work with all our partners to ensure that families are best supported and that our efforts are focused on outcomes for young people, rather than how much money is spent or what a service costs to deliver."
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