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Special need bases pay off

CHILDREN AT special schools in Aberdeen are more likely to be socially isolated in their community than pupils who attend special educational needs bases in primary and secondary.

A sample survey of parents shows that more than half (53 per cent) felt their children are isolated if they go to special schools. In contrast, only 12 per cent of parents whose children attend bases felt they had no friends outside of school.

Jim Wallace and John Leicester, independent researchers from Barnardo's, conclude that the use of bases appears to be more successful in addressing the social development of pupils with records of need.

The city reviewed its special needs policy following local government reorganisation and two years ago introduced a revised structure, with specially designed and staffed bases in clusters of schools. Parents are given a wider choice. They can send their child to a local primary or secondary, either in mainstream or in a new base, or a combination of both, or opt for a special school.

The number of children sent to independent special schools continues to fall. Around 2 per cent of primary pupils and 5 per cent of secondary pupils with records are taught outside the state sector.

More than half the 600-plus pupils with records remain in special schools, although parents are increasingly convinced local schools are the best places to educate their children. An 8 per cent swing in the primary sector to local schools, taking the total to around 46 per cent, reflects the trend. At secondary level, the swing is only 3 per cent, taking the total to just under 40 per cent.

Aberdeen believes its inclusion policy, being developed over six years, offers the variety of provision parents want. "There is no evidence parental choice is being reduced by the introduction of base provision," the researchers say.

They found the bases well furbished, equipped and staffed. In secondaries, they say: "All visits to the schools and their bases were extremely positive and one came away feeling that the potential of every young person was being fully stretched."

Education officials say bases in mainstream schools are progressing well, educationally and socially. Questionnaires show pupils and parents back the initiative overwhelmingly while teachers say mainstream pupils benefit from the inclusion of their peers with special needs.

Some pupils in primary may spend no time in mainstream classes, others can be taught alongside their peers for 75 per cent of the lessons. Needs determine the level of integration.

All primary schools report the introduction of bases as a positive experience, according to the researchers. But concerns remain about lack of training for auxiliary staff, cover for sickness or staff leaving and management time. There is also a demand for more auxiliary and specialist support.

Secondary staff highlight similar areas of concern after overcoming initial trepidation and backing the initiative.

Meanwhile, special schools say social poise and maturity are more important than academic ability if a young person is to succeed in a mainstream base.

Ability to cope with the academic challenges after primary 3-4 gives an indication of the pupil's likely chances in mainstream.

The inclusion policy could have been seen as a threat to special schools but the researchers found broad support for the new approach. Some parents, however, prefer their children to experience the safe environment of the special school.

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