The parliamentary education committee has thrown its weight behind the Scottish Executive's drive to include more and more pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools, as revealed in last week's TES Scotland. But MSPs warn there is a long way to go before the policy can be fully implemented.
The committee reports that provision for special educational needs (SEN) is a "lottery" for many parents, dependent on where they live. Attitudes and policies of schools and education authorities as well as funding vary across the country.
The committee states: "There is a lack of confidence among parents that education authorities will make placement decisions on the basis of their child's best interests. Some parents reported being persuaded by local authority officials to accept a particular placement for financial reasons."
Karen Gillon, Labour convener of the committee, acknowledged there were also professional problems. "During our inquiry, major concerns emerged about the current system of meeting special educational needs. Evidence we received highlighted the inadequacy of training for school staff, the lack of support and information for parents and children and serious problems with the present records of needs procedures for assessing pupils' requirements."
The Executive has already moved to rectify some of these weaknesses, reviewing the recording process and setting up the national Enquire information service. It has also provided pound;12 million over two years to help authorities with the costs of inclusion, and doubled to pound;2.5 million a year the support for in-service training in special needs, although the authorities claim that is not enough.
MSPs want the authorities to demonstrate how they have been using that money to advance inclusive approaches. But they also call for more resources to be put into training, both for teachers and special needs auxiliaries, and want more widespread information and training to be made available for parents outside of official channels.
A suggested independent panel to which parents can appeal if a placement request is turned down also finds favour. But the committee is firmly behind "inclusive" placements which it defines as "maximising the participation of all children in mainstream schools and removing environmental, structural and attitudinal barriers to their paricipation".
As revealed last week, the committee wants the recommendation of a special school placement to be accompanied by detailed justification that it is in the child's best interests. This should include a statement about how the special school will contribute to the child's inclusion, such as possible part-time participation in mainstream schooling, plans for later transfer to mainstream or extracurricular activities.
While the report acknowledges that special schools will continue to have a role for pupils with the most serious disabilities and that many parents and young people prefer that option, it suggests that parents are often forced to make stark choices because the present system of placements is too inflexible.
It singles out the Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld as one exception which aims to move children back into mainstream settings by the age of seven or eight.
MSPs want to see more movement of children and staff between mainstream and special schools and more use of split placements.
The report recommends that, to make a reality of inclusion, all pupils - not just those with special needs - should have personal learning plans, and "core standards" for inclusion should be set out for all trainee teachers. Serving staff should be encouraged "to address barriers to inclusion in their own practices".
Inclusion, the committee comments, "is not merely a matter of presence but requires major changes by the school, the staff and the pupils".
The report says teacher-pupil ratios also need to be brought up to date. The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association has suggested that one SEN child in a mainstream secondary classroom should count as five pupils for staffing purposes.
WHAT THE NEW RECORD SHOULD LOOK LIKE
The education committee believes the present "cumbersome, adversarial and inconsistent" recording system should be scrapped or substantially revised. The basis of any alternative should be: * Assessment should be as early as possible and carried out as quickly as possible.
* The record should be "live" by being updated at key stages.
* Parents should have the right of access to information and reports so they are fully involved in decisions about their child.
* The record should show what choices parents have been offered.
* The child's view must be included.
* A national standard to ensure greater accountability and consistency across authorities.