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Don't take the choice out of special needs

Consultation over integration has been a sham and the Executive had no choice but to back down, says Brian Monteith

IT WAS fast approaching the end of the day during the last week before Christmas. What better time to put out a news release announcing a Government climbdown? Only two Scottish daily papers carried the news that Sam Galbraith, the Education Minister, was willing to delay for a year his proposal to switch the funding of Scotland's seven grant-aided schools for children with disabilities from central coffers to local authority budgets.

This wasn't altogether unsurprising for even the publication of the Riddell report, together with the Government's acceptance of its core proposal to transfer the funding of these schools, received a small amount of uncritical coverage, but for a double page of shock, horror and outrage in the Scottish Daily Mail. Even then the Mail's approach had a great deal to do with its exclusive interview with Michael Forsyth who, during his time at the Scottish Office, had been a champion of special schools and helped establish Craighalbert in Cumbernauld.

So why did the Scottish Executive change its mind and delay by a year? The grant-aided schools were being told that they would be forced to change their financial arrangements in April this year. How could they prepare their budgets when the arrangements were not yet in place? The Minister realised the danger.

While the case for a delay was convincing that doesn't always change a politician's mind. Mr Galbraith can be forgiven for thinking that with an Education Bill to get through the new Parliament and the public deliberations of the McCrone committee to contend with he would have enough on his plate this spring. The last thing he would need is the tabloids rushing to defend Scotland's schools for disabled children.

The Riddell report is, of course, about more than the issue of funding. It recommends greater integration of children with low incidence disabilities into Scotland's mainstream schools, a trend that continues to gain greater educational acceptance and is likely to grow if the funding is available. Indeed many local authorities are already heading this way. Surely then it makes sense to give local authorities control over the funding that goes to specialist schools so that they can expand the provision for integration in mainstream schools? Where's the potential for political embarrassment in that?

The first difficulty for the Government was that the report was some four months late. Instead of adjusting the time-scale for change the Executive shortened the consultation period by four months in a vain attempt to keep to the original schedule. The second was that the consultation exercise was a sham, for the Executive announced in its document that it had already accepted a number of recommendations. With the Parliament, and in particular its education committee, keen to highlight any Government failings SamGalbraith could probably see the political ambush that was in preparation.

But ambushes need weapons. Donaldson's School for the Deaf is being redeveloped at a cost of pound;8-9 million, including pound;1.2 million of Executive funding for a National Speech and Language Centre. Without grant-aided assistance the price per place would undoubtedly rise making it even more difficult to attract placements from local authorities. The school clearly believes it has a future but it may have to become truly independent to do so. Is this what the Government intends?

Harmeny School in Edinburgh is also in the midst of a rebuilding programme, providing 52-week care for the first time and supported by pound;1.2 million from the Executive, with the rest from the lottery and the school's charitable trust. Because Harmeny is non-profit making any savings within a financial year go back to the Executive and cannot be held for reinvestment. If the proposed change to funding damaged the school's business plan there would be no funds to pay the balance of the costs of the building and none to start the next financial year.

For schools like Donaldson's and Harmeny the worry is that increased fee income from local authorities will not replace the annual Executive support. Many councils in pursuit of integration will spend their money locally on mainstream provision.

And what of the integration argument itself? Surely the switch away from specialist schools should be encouraged? I disagree. We should be developing policies that expand the choice available to parents and their children rather than limiting them.

In the case of groups like the deaf there is a need for a community of pupils. This provides for their emotional as well as educational needs and allows them to interact in a way that they cannot in a mainstream school.

It must be assumed that many councils have already tried all the local options before they send a pupil out of their authority. Councils do not take such decisions lightly. Many parents testify to the difficulty in convincing their authority to place their child. All of this would suggest that the current system fulfils a need.

There is a strong case for integration and I believe we are on the way to making it a viable option, but it should not become the latest totem of political correctness. The difficulty for many parents remains that they find their local authority unwilling to countenance a place in a specialist school, and the Riddell report places even more obstacles in their way.

By June the Parliament's education, culture and sport committee will have reviewed the Riddell report and the provision of integrated education. Mr Galbraith should fix his mind on his Education Bill and await the committee's review rather than go down as the man who brought about state integration by compulsion.

Brian Monteith is MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and Tory spokesman on education, culture and sport.

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