Every year the Scottish government invests millions of pounds in seven grant-aided special schools – some of which have existed for more than a hundred years like the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh and Donaldson’s School in Linlithgow.
However, a Tes Scotland investigation has revealed that some of the schools are managing to fill just half of their places, with the rolls having plummeted in recent years.
Now an additional support needs expert, Sheila Riddell, professor of inclusion and diversity at the University of Edinburgh, is saying there is no logic to which schools benefit from grant-aided special school status and there could be “fairer ways” of distributing the roughly £10.5 million they received each year.
However, Mark O’Donnell, chief executive of the charity that runs the Royal Blind School, told Tes Scotland that without the grant the school could quickly become “unviable” and its expertise lost at a time when support for visually impaired pupils in mainstream schools was declining.
Using Freedom of Information legislation, Tes Scotland asked the seven grant-aided special schools what their rolls were in May of this year.
Overall the FOI revealed that five of the seven grant-aided special schools had a substantial number of unfilled places.
In the case of Donaldson’s School in Linlithgow – which is known for being a school for deaf children but has evolved in recent years to cater for children with different kinds of communication difficulties, including autistic children – the school had just 10 pupils on its roll.
That was half the number of pupils the school had the capacity to take and a sixth of the number the school had a decade ago in 2008-09 when it was attended by 62 pupils.
The figures show the school’s roll began dropping significantly after 2013-14 when 58 pupils were enrolled. The next year the roll fell to 47 pupils; then 31; 14; 12 and finally 10 in 2018-19.
In 2014 an unannounced inspection took place at Donaldson’s after allegations were made against a senior member of staff and the school was given just seven days by ministers to come up with a plan for improvements.
More generally the rolls of special schools have been hit due to the presumption that whenever possible pupils with ASNs should be educated in mainstream schools.
The Royal Blind School meanwhile had capacity for 45-50 day pupils, it said, but as of May there were 28 pupils on the roll. Back in 2009 the school roll was 94.
Together the two schools received just over £4.5 million of government funding last year.
However, speaking on behalf of the Royal Blind School, Mr O’Donnell said the school capacity figure of 45 to 50 pupils was “a notional number dependent on the individual needs of pupils” and “too many barriers” were being put in the way of pupils who could benefit from the school's help.
Councils still have to pay fees for grant-aided special schools because government funding does not fully cover running costs and some argue these charges are putting cash-strapped local authorities off using the resource.
Mr O’Donnell added that the school was a national centre of expertise and was “determined to grow” its outreach work in mainstream schools.
He continued: “[Pupils with vision impairment] already face an attainment gap and fewer employment opportunities than their fully sighted peers, yet we have seen declining provision of vital specialist support in mainstream schools at a time when Scottish government figures indicate the number of blind and partially sighted pupils has more than doubled over the past decade. This would therefore be precisely the wrong time to remove the crucial underpinning to education for children with vision impairment which the GASS [Grant Aided Special School] grant provides."
In addition to the Royal Bind School and Donaldson‘s School the two grant-aided schools run by disability charity Capability Scotland – Corseford School in Johnstone and Stanmore House School in Lanark – were also operating below capacity. They each had space for 25 pupils, but rolls of 15 as of May this year.
The Scottish Centre for Children with Motor Impairments in Cumbernauld said it had the capacity to take around 20-24 pupils evenly split across primary and secondary. It had 14 pupils on its roll in May, with one pupil in nursery, 11 pupils in primary and just two in secondary – although the school did point out that the roll varies throughout the school year.
However, Harmeny School in Balerno – for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties – bucked the trend and reported that demand for its services had been rising. It had capacity for 30 pupils and 28 on the roll in May, it said.
East Park School in Glasgow, meanwhile, caters for pupils with complex learning disabilities coupled with health related problems and a diagnosis of autism. It has 22 places all of which it said were filled.
Neil Squires, the chief executive of Harmeny Education Trust, said: “The demand for placements at Harmeny School has remained consistent over the last 10 years, with an overall cumulative growth during this period. Between August 2013 to May 2016, a fifth residential cottage and additional classroom were set up, to meet increased demand at the time, largely from one particular local authority.”
Professor Riddell said that the Doran review of learning provision for children with complex additional support needs, published in 2012, had recommended national services be strategically planned and commissioned. However, she said the introduction of the recommendation had been “glacial” and the Scottish government was “very wary of upsetting any particular constituency or interest group and so we have policy stasis”.
Professor Riddell said: “The future of the grant-aided special schools has been uncertain for a very long time. It’s obvious that it's serendipitous which schools have the grant-aided status – there’s no particular logic to it, and there could be fairer ways of doing it.
“There’s no evidence they are any more excellent than any other provision. There are around 30 independent special schools in Scotland some of which are very successful but they have no grant-aided status.”
Another issue she said was that all the grant-aided special schools were located in the central belt.
She continued: “Local authorities want to avoid as far as possible putting children into residential placements, not just because of the cost, but also because of the potential for things to go wrong as demonstrated by the review of historical child abuse that’s going on at the moment.”
A Scottish government spokeswoman said it wanted all children and young people to get the support that they needed to reach their full potential and to learn in the environment that best suited their needs, be that mainstream school or a specialist setting.
The spokeswoman added: “The Scottish government accepted the Doran review’s recommendations to introduce strategic commissioning for children and young people with complex additional support needs and we continue to work with key stakeholders on their implementation.”