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Special needs bar to go

Ministers to give parents the right to demand a mainstream place but will not axe separate schools

MINISTERS plan to give statutory backing to the inclusion of pupils with special educational needs in mainstream classes.

This was revealed by Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, in unreported exchanges during the final parliamentary session of last century.

Mr Galbraith announced his intention "to put a presumption in the (Education) Bill that individuals with special educational needs will be taught in mainstream schooling". A clause will not be included in the Bill, which is due to be published next week, but the move is to be confirmed in the Scottish Executive's response to consultation on the legislation to be issued at the same time.

Ministers first want to seek views from the special needs advisory forum. Mr Galbraith said he hoped the forum could respond in time to make the change while the legislation is still going through Parliament.

The Government's declaration of its hand came just days after The TES Scotland reported that pressure to replace special schools with mainstream education was growing. A new Scottish lobby, the Equity Group, has been formed to argue for reform and the Parliament's education committee has already agreed to an inquiry.

A UK task force on disability has already recommended that the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act should be extended to schools as well as to colleges and universities. This would strengthen the rights of parents whose children's special needs are officially recorded to demand a mainstream school place.

The Educational Institute of Scotland called this week for the Act to be extended to Scottish schools, unaware that ministers had in effect already agreed. Theinclusion of education within the legislation would remove "one of the greatest gaps in the law as it stands at present", Ronnie Smith, the EIS's general secretary, said.

The task force has also made far-reaching recommendations calling on schools and local authorities to draw up plans that would allow disabled pupils easier access to school premises and a fuller curriculum.

Mr Smith called on the Executive to recognise that "the integration of children with special needs in a mainstream school will have cost and staffing implications". He also stressed that special schools must continue to exist to give parents a range of options. "Mainstream education is not the only show in town."

The EIS was backed by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council. "Our view is that there should be choice and that parents facing considerable challenges in educating their children should not be overwhelmed by the latest wave of political correctness," Judith Gillespie, the council's development manager, commented.

In the latest issue of Backchat, the SPTC's newsletter, Steve Law, chairman of the parent-teacher association at Westfield special school in Dalkeith, said the need for specially trained teachers, high pupil-teacher ratios, different classroom layouts, specific timetables and curricula all pointed to the value of having special schools. "Diversity and choice is the best policy," Mr Hall said. His seven-year-old autistic son is a pupil at Westfield.

It is understood that ministers are sympathetic to this view but insist that the merits of individual cases or cost considerations will be the only grounds for making exceptions to the "presumption" of mainstream education. They see this as an inescapable plank of their social inclusion policies.

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