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Look for the positives in pupils

Strong leadership, staff committed to inclusion, appropriate curriculums and good communications with parents are all features inspectors found in schools that are very effective in mainstream teaching of children with special educational needs.

The Audit Scotland report Moving to Mainstream, published in May, also lists a commitment to inter-agency working. In recent years, poor inter-agency working has been a recurrent theme in studies of service failures of vulnerable children.

In Dumfries and Galloway, fragmentation of services was identified as the main cause of the 1996 crisis of confidence that led to the council contracting out assessment and support for vulnerable children to Aberlour Child Care Trust through the Crannog project. One of the most significant consequences was better inter-agency working, says Stuart Beck, the council's group manager of children's services. At a conference in Glasgow this summer he said: "Crannog I has also acted as a catalyst in a definite shift from service demarcation to service integration."

However, at the same conference, Crannog's service manager Steve McCreadie, presented results from his own research that raised doubts about the primacy of inter-agency working. The focus on structures, he said, understates the pivotal contribution of individuals.

"There is a danger that we invest only in partnerships, when it is relationships and the ability to engage young people and families in the process of change that makes the difference," he said.

At Stranraer Academy, teachers and managers rarely mention inter-agency working. They talk about relationships and the importance of educating teachers, parents and pupils about the needs and abilities of vulnerable children.

One expert who does emphasise inter-agency working is Annie McMahon, project manager of the Children and Young People's Substances Service, a Scottish Executive-funded pilot with offices at the school. It provides services to young people who have or are at risk of developing substance misuse problems.

"A number of agencies are working on a strategic framework for education and prevention, to create a consistent approach to substance misuse," she says.

"There are well-meaning inputs into schools from various sources that are fine in themselves but not part of any framework, so there is no preparation or follow-up. We would like those to become part of a consistent approach. We would also like other agencies, such as family learning and health promotion, to work with parents and carers at the same time, so when children go home parents can talk to them about it."

Even with the focus on inter-agency working, individuals and relationships remain crucial. "When a young person is referred to us we carry out an assessment that looks at family life, schooling, issues with the children's hearing system. Then we draw up an action plan," says Ms McMahon.

"We try to widen their understanding of the problems that substance misuse can bring about and we look at the skills they already have. Our staff build a relationship with the young person, which is the most important thing, and they look for the positives in their life. If they are really good at art or excellent at swimming, we will home in on that and support and encourage them as much as we can."

Moving to Mainstream: The inclusion of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream schools, Audit Scotland, May2003

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