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Needs Bill hit by black hole

Costs spiralling way above Scottish Executive estimates are in grave danger of jeopardising plans to reform special educational needs legislation. Some MSPs believe the draft additional support for learning Bill is now in serious difficulty.

Education directors this week became the latest group to attack the Bill in the Scottish Parliament as MSPs on the finance and education committees grow increasingly anxious about the financial impact of what many believe is badly drafted legislation.

The Association of Directors of Education in Scotland suggests the true costs of mainstreaming and the introduction of co-ordinated support plans may rise well above the Audit Scotland estimate of pound;121 million a year. It describes its calculations as "conservative".

Audit Scotland has already warned MSPs about introducing legislation without reference to costs after mainstreaming was added at a late stage of the schools Act in 2000.

Directors of education and social work on Wednesday effectively told ministers that they have got it wrong and were backed by psychologists and secondary headteachers. In a written submission, Stirling Council describes the Bill as "a missed opportunity". It would prefer an all-embracing children's Bill that spreads the focus from education to the range of services children need.

Authorities fear they will be overwhelmed by parents demanding the co-ordinated support plans (CSPs) that will replace records of need. The Executive puts the figure at some 8,000 children - half the number with a record of need - but directors contend this is wildly inaccurate.

They suggest up to 15 per cent of the school population may fall into the Executive's criteria for a support plan. Councils now want the Executive to re-examine its costs with help from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Bryan Kirkaldy, a senior manager in Fife and ADES spokesman, warned MSPs that the "inclusion of quasi-medical deficits such as complex and multiple factors contributes nothing to clarity of definition".

Mr Kirkaldy said: "This definition is likely to lead to the existing cumbersome and bureaucratic system being replaced by a system that is equally cumbersome and bureaucratic but applicable to a much wider population of pupils."

Authorities and schools were already moving towards integrated community schools with far better provision for pupils who would previously have been in special schools. The Standards in Scotland's Schools Act and recent disability legislation had helped to change practice and many schools were already delivering the type of co-ordinated services the Executive wants.

"Our view is that the definition(to qualify for a CSP) is not consistent with a principle of minimum effective intervention and with the stated intention of the Bill to reduce bureaucracy," Mr Kirkaldy said in a written submission.

Addressing MSPs, Mr Kirkaldy cautioned that authorities forced to establish a plan would take at least six months because of the statutory nature of the process. This was not the intention of ministers which was to simplify and modernise. The directors want a more targeted use of CSPs.

George Haggarty, head of St John's High, Dundee, and spokesman for the Headteachers' Association of Scotland, said that there would undoubtedly be increased numbers of pupils with additional support needs.

In his own school of 900 pupils, 10-15 per cent would be classed as in need of extra support. Schools were already acting through initiatives such as individualised education programmes (IEPs) before the switch to CSPs.

"It hinges fundamentally on whether parents think there will be a guarantee of more resources if they have a CSP. A lot will hinge on parents'

perception," Mr Haggarty said.

He believed there were gaps in provision for young people, such as the lack of counselling for mental health problems which may surface at the age 14 or 15. Some of the most challenging children needed support from other agencies.

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