Parents of pupils with special needs are now able to choose between social work providers, but only a handful do so, says Penny Wallace
wo years have passed since the Scottish Executive issued guidelines for implementing direct payments. The initiative, established in accordance with the Community Care and Health (Scotland) Act 2002, offers representatives of children with disabilities the option of receiving payments to purchase services traditionally supplied by social workers, with the aim of improving quality of life by increasing choice within this client group.
Since the introduction of the default presumption of mainstreaming for children with learning disabilities, school staff are getting better at meeting children's additional support needs in the mainstream setting by including pupils in a variety of activities within the classroom.
This, however, does not necessarily make up for the obvious developmental discrepancy that is likely to persist throughout an individual's educational career and often means that the child concerned is running "flat out" simply to maintain a deficit.
Parents appreciate that the classroom teacher cannot be "all things to all people", particularly if there is more than one child in a class with additional support needs, as is increasingly the case. This, coupled with parents' knowledge of chronically over-spent special needs budgets and resulting under-resourced classrooms, justifies their wishes to provide their children with additional learning opportunities.
Although parents have had qualified success in obtaining financial support from their local education authorities for home interventions at pre-school level, they are discovering that authorities will not support after-school learning, stating that the education the child is receiving in school should be sufficient.
Parents in this position believed that direct payments would be the ideal solution to their financial responsibilities for their children's extra-curricular education. In many cases, however, they have been sadly mistaken.
According to a recent statistical release from the Scottish Executive, only five learning-disabled children in Scotland have received direct payments in the last year; a derisory 0.5 per cent of all payments made over the same period.
There may be several explanations for the apparently low uptake. First, the scheme remains in its infancy; children have been eligible to receive payments only since June 2003. The lead-in time is likely further exacerbated by the chronic shortage of social workers who can carry out an initial assessment of the child, family and their environment.
Second, according to a report published in 2000 by the Executive's central research unit (Direct Payments: The Impact on Choice and Control for Disabled People), it would appear that social work services are in no hurry to publicise the initiative. The document cited professionals' fears that providing direct payments would open the floodgates on an already overburdened service.
While the report referred to adults with disabilities, one would imagine the same anxieties exist where children are concerned.
Third, the Scottish Executive introduced the initiative without any pump-priming incentives, resulting in disabled individuals competing with other social-work priority groups for scarce resources.
Furthermore, the Executive guidelines state that direct payments are not available for services that fall under the remit of the Education (Scotland) Act 1980.
Parents are discovering that social work services interpret this clause in such a way as to deny the individuals eligibility to receive direct payments, despite their assessed entitlement in all other respects. The main reason parents give for implementing after-school intervention focuses on allowing a child to achieve his or her potential. Many parents would also argue that the teaching carried out satisfies at least three of the guideline criteria for eligibility: that additional provision equips the child to access opportunities for social inclusion; reduces the long-term level of need, and provides welcome respite for parents.
The case is clearer where disabled adults are concerned. Direct payments offer individuals the opportunity to live an independent life by employing live-in carers or personal assistants. However, one could ask whether teaching a learning-disabled adult how to purchase a pint of milk is educational or is part of learning how to live independently. It is then that the boundaries become blurred.
Where, therefore, does this leave parents who wish to offer their child opportunities to achieve their potential despite their difficulties? Apparently, in the same place where they have always been: entrenched in a metaphorical no man's land between service providers.
Penny Wallace is a writer and former nurse.