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The off the record debate

Ministers intend to play a straight bat in the consultation over special needs entitlement, reports Neil Munro

THE way in which children with special educational needs are assessed is to be the subject of a wide-ranging national debate between now and the end of July. The long-awaited consultation on whether the much-criticised system of recording should be overhauled was launched last Friday by Nicol Stephen, Deputy Education Minister.

Addressing the annual conference in Dundee of Enquire, the national advice service for SEN, Mr Stephen said: "Many parents have concerns over the present system and want to see it improved and strengthened."

But the consultation document itself gives little away about the Scottish Executive's intentions and plays a straight bat in setting out both sides of the argument for minimum and maximum change.

The document states: "There are those who point to difficulties with the current assessment and recording system and argue that these flaws are so serious that the system ought to be replaced completely with a new one which focuses on entitlement for all . . . not just the 1-2 per cent for whom records are presently considered appropriate."

It then continues: "However, others argue for a less radical approach to change. They point to the benefits of the current legislation and argue that it has served many parents and children well over the last 20 years and should be strengthened."

The paper acknowledges that some parents and teachers use the record to extract extra money which can lead to conflict with local authorities. The process of recording has also been criticised as time-consuming and bureaucratic and, even when a record is opened, parents and teachers complain the statements within it can be "too general to be useful".

However, there is also a parental view that, without the statutory basis of recording children's rights, will not be protected. Mr Stephen said he had "an open mind" on the existing arrangements. He suggested the key issues should be: "If change is needed, what degree of change? If changes are made to the process, wil current definitions of special educational needs and learning difficulty have to change as well? How can the current system be improved?" The consultation document wrestles with the tensions between the recording process and the new duty on schools to meet the needs of all children whether they require special measures or not. It promotes the idea of using individualised programmes to monitor pupils' progress.

The Executive says an alternative might simply be to change the criteria for opening a record of needs for children with "pronounced, specific or complex special educational needs". Instead, a record could be opened where the authority decides a school is not able to educate a child within its resources.

Such an approach, the document states, "supports the development of inclusion because mainstream schools would require to demonstrate that they had made significant efforts to meet the child's needs before a record of needs could be opened".

The Executive also wants ideas on how parents can be more involved in decisions . Many complain they feel frustrated, confused and excluded. The consultation invites views on whether rights of appeal against decisions should be extended. At present appeals are possible only on procedural matters such as whether a record should be opened or not. The courts can only be involved in disputes about school placements.

There is no appeal for parents if they are unhappy with the provision made for the child after a record has been opened, such as additional learning support or therapy. The parliamentary education committee's SEN inquiry recommended that an independent tribunal be set up to handle appeals as in England and Wales.

But education authorities are wary of quantifying resources especially in relation to medical therapies over which they have no control, and also fear extending appeals could lead to more confrontation with parents.

A suggested alternative is to set up a mediation and conciliation service to resolve disputes before they reach an appeals stage. This is currently being piloted in five local authorities.

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