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Ministers to act on special needs

THE Scottish Executive is to prepare a national strategy on special educational needs, which will include revisiting the controversial issue of the way the seven national specialist centres are to be funded.

This was announced in the Scottish Parliament last week by Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister. Mr Stephen was taking part in a debate responding to the SEN report from the education committee of MSPs. In one of the most impressive education debates yet, the report was approved without dissent.

Mr Stephen said he was "sympathetic" to the idea of a national strategy for special needs but wanted the national special needs forum, which he chairs, to give it detailed consideration first. It will do so at its next meeting on June 5.

He is currently visiting all seven national schools to see their work at first hand and has delayed by a further year to March 2003 the planned transfer of their pound;12 million grant from the Executive to local authorities. Critics of the move, including the schools themselves, fear this could threaten their viability and diminish the availability of national expertise.

At the end of the debate, Mr Stephen appeared to concede the case of Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, who has been running a vigorous campaign to retain national funding, partly on the grounds that it gave parents choice and preserved national expertise.

Mr Stephen agreed with much of what Mr Monteith said about the importance of specialist provision. National centres, he said, could help make a reality of mainstreaming in schools, particularly in rural areas, through expertise, research and outreach work.

MSPs on all sides were united in their support for the "inclusion" of young people in mainstream classes, although there was also widespread agreement that decisions must not be "dogmatic", a word which featured almost as frequently as inclusin.

Mike Russell, the SNP's education spokesman, said: "The same formula does not fit everybody."

Mr Stephen agreed that the focus should be on an education which was "appropriate" to each child. Inclusive education could be delivered through mainstream or specialist provision or a combination of the two. "Inclusion does not mean forced integration," he said. "I emphasise that point."

In his closing remarks, Mr Stephen stressed the importance of involving parents. "We are not asking for a philosophical or high-level commitment to the involvement of parents. We want a response to the blood, sweat and tears - too often and too many - of parents who are battling with the system."

He announced that the pound;13 million given to local authorities this year to include more pupils in mainstream classes, itself double last year's figure, would be increased in each of the next two years. Guidance would shortly be issued.

The election "purdah" on major ministerial initiatives prevented Mr Stephen from releasing any details, and he was similarly constrained in spelling out forthcoming plans to improve access for disabled pupils.

His speech did, however, indicate that guidance would be issued soon on the length of the special school week. There would also be two inquiries, one to address the shortage of education psychologists (right) and the other to deal with supply problems in speech therapy, occupational therapy and physiotherapy services.

Mr Russell also called for action on post-school support for young people with special needs, which he said was becoming "the key issue". He received strong and emotional support from David Mundell, Tory member for the south of Scotland, whose children have dyspraxia.

Mr Stephen undertook to pass these concerns to the national action group which is processing the recommendations of the Beattie committee's report.

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