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A bridge too near?

Now that the record of needs is to go, children should have a right to universal entitlement, says Tommy MacKay

CATHY JAMIESON, the Education Minister, believes that the new plans for children with additional support needs will form the basis of "significant long-term improvements across Scotland". There are many who share her confidence in this and who, in general, welcome the proposals. Reform, as the minister noted, is a complex issue, and certainly one that has been responded to by groups which have widely differing agendas. Yet the very fact that a document on such a potentially contentious area has not been met by sweeping condemnation from any quarter must in itself be a testimony to the overall worth of the plans.

Interestingly, as with much that has happened since devolution, the new arrangements will divide Scotland even more sharply from England and Wales as far as special education is concerned. But it is a gulf that is to be welcomed and, in terms of vision, philosophy and terminology, I believe that Scotland has the opportunity to provide an international lead in this field.

The vision is one in which all children have the opportunity to reach their fullest potential, and the underpinning philosophy is a commitment to an inclusive society. As to terminology, a significant step forward has been taken. The term "special educational needs" has quietly disappeared and "additional support needs" has taken its place.

It is not just a matter of fashion or political correctness. "Special" was value laden and, however positively intended, ultimately patronising and discriminatory. It also unfairly relegated all the rest of education to the "ordinary". "Additional support" points to facts rather than values, and highlights an important but very ordinary circumstance, namely, if everyone is to have equal opportunity, they will need differing levels of support to achieve it.

However, the most significant proposal is that the record of needs will go. Those of us who have described it as cumbersome and bureaucratic, as divisive, confrontational and discriminatory, will strongly support this move. It is not that there is anything troublesome in the notion of having a proper record of a child's needs. Rather, it is the machinery and legislation that goes with it. The new "co-ordinated support plan" aims to dismantle much of this machinery. It is not envisaged as a "completely separate, free-standing document". It will no longer depend on compulsory medical and psychological assessments. After all, do I need a doctor to examine my body because I have a learning difficulty? Do I need a psychologist because I have a wheelchair?

The focus shifts to resources - and if these do not appear good enough, parents will have wider rights of appeal than under the current inadequate and unwieldy system. Mediation not litigation will be the emphasis, and the aim is that the proposed appeal tribunals will not reflect the adversarial English system (from which, preserve us) but will be accessible, user-friendly, fast and as informal as possible.

However, there may yet be a fundamental flaw. The co-ordinated support plan will have legal status. What does that mean? If it again creates a system of the haves and the have nots among those with additional support needs then it will be discriminatory on every side. The old arguments will rage once more. Many have nots will appeal to become haves. Being an articulate parent will influence the outcome rather than level of real need, as my own research on the distribution of the record has demonstrated. But the haves will be subject to discrimination too. If I need resources beyond what my school provides, why must I have a different legal status from them to receive my entitlement?

Most respondents to the consultation felt that separate legislation was necessary because "guidance would not be enough". Yet why should that be the only choice? Of course, guidance is not enough to secure entitlement. We do not rely on "guidance" to secure the education of children in general. It is mandatory - and it should be mandatory within exactly the same legislative framework to provide for all children whatever their needs, without introducing an arbitrary cut-off point somewhere along the "additional support needs" continuum.

deally it should be the same legislation and the same documents for everyone, specifying the plan to meet their educational needs and the resources to be provided. For most children this would be standard provision, becoming more and more elaborated and differentiated as needs increase. The best safeguard for the most needy will be universal, not particular.

The minister has promised a full consultation process to take things forward. This is not only wise, but crucial. It will provide the opportunity for diverse groups to work together towards outcomes that will be widely endorsed. The progress of Scottish education legislation for children with additional support needs throughout the past century and more has been so smooth and predictable that it makes the job of the futurologist easy.

The fact that the record of needs would go was as necessary and as historically predetermined as the requirement that it should have been created in the first place. The new proposals have built a significant bridge towards an inclusive future based on universal entitlement. However, unless the separate legislative platform on which the record is based goes along with the record itself - that is, unless we safeguard the rights of all children and young people on exactly the same legal foundation - it will be a bridge too near.

Tommy MacKay is director of Psychology Consultancy Services, an honorary lecturer in psychology at Strathclyde University and vice-president of the British Psychological Society.

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