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Special needs data does not do the job, disability expert warns

The author of a major study on special needs that contributed to the Executive's push for education in mainstream schools has condemned the inadequacy of official statistics. Sheila Riddell, professor of disability studies at Glasgow University, believes that data contains contradictions and is "not very meaningful".

Addressing a seminar on inclusive schooling organised by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and sponsored by the Executive, Professor Riddell said that the Record of Needs, which the Executive is likely to abolish, was used differently across local authorities. In Scotland as a whole 56 per cent of recorded children are educated in mainstream schools, but in some councils - Angus, East Lothian, Moray and Scottish Borders - the figure is 100 per cent, whereas it is much lower in Edinburgh, Glasgow and West Dunbartonshire.

Professor Riddell also said that children with special needs in mainstream education often turned out to be in special units where there is little contact with able-bodied peers. Contrary to the rhetoric about increased mainstreaming, which was encouraged by the Standards in Schools Act, the number of special schools and units had risen.

"If we are serious, we need to know more about the statistics and where we are going," she said. "Root and branch tinking is needed."

Professor Riddell, who chaired a committee that reported in 1999 on children with severe low- incidence disabilities, feared that parents in Scotland get a poorer deal than those south of the border. There is no equivalent here to the special educational needs tribunals in England and Wales to which parents can bring appeals against decisions on their children's education. Here recourse is to the sheriff court which can be "secretive and intimidating", and levels of appeal are very low.

Abolishing the Record of Needs would remove the only way in which parents have rights. There is a need to "avoid a backlash of an inclusive system being introduced without parents' and children's voices being heard. We need to get people buying into the policy," Professor Riddell said.

Nicol Stephen, Deputy Minister for Education, outlined to the seminar the range of SEN initiatives funded by the Executive and said that their impact had to be pulled together. Teachers welcomed integration of pupils with special needs but worried about the level of investment and care needed to make it a success.

Too many excluded pupils had special needs or came from deprived backgrounds, Mr Stephen said. "Intervention then is too late - support is needed at an earlier stage."

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