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Special needs, special targets

Special schools are to be included in target-setting. But it won't be easy. Neil Munro reports

The Government is determined special schools must play their part in target-setting, the Education Minister has made clear.

Addressing the Scottish conference of the National Association for Special Educational Needs at the weekend, Brian Wilson said the combination of targets and the emphasis on early intervention should help to "unlock the potential" of all pupils, including those with special needs.

"If we are looking to raise standards for all pupils then we are looking to raise standards for those with special educational needs," Mr Wilson said.

But he acknowledged that it would not be easy to include special schools in target-setting. "They tend to be smaller than mainstream schools and comparison between special schools, in the way that mainstream schools can be compared, raises issues such as the populations of two special schools being quite different, even though they may claim to be serving a similar population of pupils.

"We are actively examining how all special schools can be included in setting targets. To support this process, we have a development officer who is discussing with staff in a range of schools across the country how they can be involved in setting targets.

"Our aim is that by December this year we will launch advice on setting targets across the range of provision for pupils with special educational needs," he said.

Some education authorities, notably Aberdeen, have castigated the targets initiative, arguing it may have an adverse effect on inclusive special needs policies. Problem pupils may not be welcomed in mainstream classes, Aberdeen has warned, in case they undermine a school's ability to meet its targets.

But Paul Hamill, head of the department of special educational needs at Jordanhill, commented: "I wouldn't subscribe to the view that including pupils with special needs will automatically lower attainment or prevent targets being achieved.

"A special-needs philosophy is for all pupils and my experience is that, where it is applied, it forces teachers to look at their philosophy, their teaching and their use of differentiation. This emphasis on the individual needs of pupils therefore benefits all pupils, not just those with special needs."

Mr Hamill agreed, however, there would always be a tension between targets and the needs of individual pupils. The inspectorate argues that, since targets are partly based on schools' existing performance, they take account of the current population, including the proportion of those with special needs. There should therefore be no adverse effects, HMI claims.

Mr Wilson stressed that other government policies, such as early intervention and tackling social exclusion (see page 6), could also contribute to meeting special educational needs.

The Scottish Office has just begun a three-month consultation period on special needs. Mr Wilson pledged: "I am determined to ensure that there is appropriate specialist provision in place for all children who require it."

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