Call to change ‘crazy’ funding of special schools

Expert calls for end to system that results in government-funded schools with unfilled places

Emma Seith

Call to change ‘crazy’ funding of special schools

An education law expert is calling on the Scottish government to fully fund schools such as the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, arguing that the current system is “crazy” and leading to public money being wasted.

There are eight schools in Scotland that receive money directly from the Scottish government, as opposed to being funded through councils.

However, just one of these so-called grant-aided schools – the mainstream Jordanhill School in Glasgow, which has a budget of around £5.5 million a year – is fully funded. The remaining seven schools, all of which are special schools, are funded to the tune of over £10 million a year, but this does not cover all their funding.

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According to Iain Nisbet, an education law expert with over 15 years of experience dealing with placing request cases involving children with additional support needs, this causes problems because the cost of placing children in the schools remains high for councils, making them reluctant to use the resource.

The result, says Mr Nisbet, is special schools that receive public money, but struggle to fill their rolls.

He told Tes Scotland: “A perfectly reasonable position would be to not continue to publicly fund any of these schools and just have council schools but if you are going to put public funding towards them then this is a crazy system.”

A better system, he argued, would be for the government to fully fund the schools to provide a set number of places and then allow the schools as the experts to determine the pupils who would benefit most from their services. At present, the children who got into the grant-aided special schools were not necessarily those that needed the specialist place the most, he explained, but those whose families had reached crisis point or whose parents were “more persuasive, articulate or knowledgeable”.

Mr Nisbet, who is a consultant solicitor at Cairn Legal, added: “The Scottish government already provides 100 per cent capital and revenue funding for one mainstream grant-aided school, Jordanhill School, and there is no reason why it could not do so with grant-aided special schools. It would be simple to achieve, would not require any legislative changes, and provides savings elsewhere in the system. In the first instance, this could be piloted in relation to a small number of schools or even a single school.”

Mr Nisbet raised his concerns during a Scottish government consultation about the learning provision for pupils with complex additional support needs. An analysis of the consultation responses was published earlier this month.

The grant-aided special schools include the Royal Blind School, in Edinburgh; Harmeny School for children with complex social, emotional and behavioural needs, in Balerno; Donaldson's School for children who are deaf or who have communication difficulties, in Linlithgow; East Park School for children with additional support needs, including autism, in Glasgow; Stanmore House School for children with complex additional support needs, in Lanark; Corseford School for children with complex physical, communication and health needs, in Johnstone; and the Scottish Centre For Children With Motor Impairments, in Cumbernauld.

Currently, they receive grants from the Scottish government that add up to roughly £10.5 million a year, ranging from the £2.6 million that goes to Royal Blind School, to the £740,000 that goes to the  Scottish Centre For Children With Motor Impairments.

However, places at the Royal Blind School still cost councils between £22,500 to £38,000 for a day pupil, depending on the complexity of the child’s needs, and from £40,500 to roughly £68,000 for a residential place.

Last year the Royal Blind School headteacher, Elaine Brackenridge, told Tes Scotland there would be a waiting list for places at the school if it were free but currently, it was being used as a last resort by councils that struggled to afford the fees.

At the time of the article which was published in November, the Royal Blind School had a roll of 28; in 2014 that figure was 45. 

Overall, the number of pupils in grant-aided special schools has plummeted by more than 60 per cent, from 360 in 2005 to 131 last year, according to Scottish government figures.

The Scottish government said it was for councils "to determine the provision that best meets the needs of their pupils, in light of local circumstances and priorities, and to make arrangements accordingly".

It added: “We want all children and young people to get the support that they need to reach their full learning potential. The Additional Support for Learning Act places education authorities under duties to identify, provide for and review the additional support needs of their pupils.

“In Scotland we have a range of provision in place to meet children and young people’s needs, including mainstream primary and secondary provision, enhanced support provision and special school provision, including both grant-aided and independent special school provision."


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Emma Seith

Emma Seith

Emma Seith is a reporter for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Emma_Seith

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