Additional needs pass final scrutiny

9th April 2004 at 01:00
A new system of additional support needs will be steadily introduced from autumn next year, backed by pound;26 million of new money, Scottish ministers reaffirmed last week.

After several years of consultation and research, MSPs have finally passed the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Bill which consigns to history the term special educational needs and the contentious and variable practice behind it.

But even in the final moments, opposition MSPs continued to challenge many of its fundamental principles. Fiona Hyslop, the SNP's spokeswoman, challenged the new balance between parent rights and those of local authorities and questioned "how fairness and justice for all can be balanced against rationing resources and targeting for a few".

Ms Hyslop said: "There is some recognition of the need to protect children who currently have a record of needs, but there is a danger that they will not have the rights that are comparable to the rights of those who have the new CSP (co-ordinated support plan). That cuts to the heart of the matter."

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the Tories' lead spokesman, maintained to the bitter end that perhaps several thousand children and their families would be disadvantaged. They would be entitled to a record of needs under the present system but not a CSP.

A forthcoming detailed code of practice for local authorities and others was unlikely to solve basic difficulties, Lord James said.

"Many children in Scotland who have severe learning problems, such as dyslexia, may not require support from other agencies. In our view, such children should - at the very least - be entitled to a support plan.

However, many of them will not be entitled to that under the Bill."

Lord James said others such as children with autism would fall outside, pointing out that the National Autistic Society was worried that some children on the autistic spectrum may not be assessed correctly "as their needs are often hidden".

Children will only be entitled to a support plan if other agencies are involved. Ministers counter that individualised educational programmes and personal learning plans will be available for those who fail to qualify for the more targeted service.

Rosemary Byrne, for the Scottish Socialists, fears that the Bill "will simply provide a minefield for parents". Ms Byrne appealed for a universal service, not the two-tier system ministers had devised.

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, countered that local authorities for the first time had a duty to assess and address the needs of every child, "irrespective of their having a statutory learning plan".

The Bill also placed duties on other agencies such as health and social work to assist education services. "It removes the outdated and overly bureaucratic record of needs process. It provides for mediation services and dispute-resolution arrangements to help resolve disputes between parents, the school and the education authority," Mr Peacock said.

Rhona Brankin, Labour and a former teacher with experience of special needs, said the 1980 legislation had been overtaken and there were huge discrepancies in how authorities dealt with children. Earlier legislation, for example, did not include social, emotional and behavioural difficulties.

"As a parent, I welcome the new rights for parents that are in the Bill, including the right for parents to ask the education authority to assess their child, the right to access to mediation and dispute resolution, and the right to appeal to the new, family-friendly tribunals," Ms Brankin said.

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