THE drive to "inclusive" schooling was stepped up this week with publication of a draft Bill today (Friday) to reform special educational needs, which will give significant new powers to parents.
The Bill, which has been issued for feedback until March 28 and is itself the outcome of earlier consultation, is symbolically entitled the Additional Support for Learning Bill to signify a shift in direction.
Cathy Jamieson, Education Minister, said the legislation would mark "a move away from the often stigmatising definition of special educational needs, which is sometimes seen to mark out a small number of children.
"Instead, with the broader concept of additional support needs, it provides a wider framework to support those who might be facing barriers to learning, for whatever reason and at whatever time in their school education."
Critics of the present system have long argued that the assessment and recording requirements are outdated, bureaucratic and not parent-friendly. The need for a review has been supported by the Riddell committee and the Scottish Parliament's education committee.
Ms Jamieson said: "Those who come to need additional support must be served by a modern system, one that is less bureaucratic, one that is more streamlined, one that is flexible, one that, crucially, makes a difference to the child. And it is important that we take parents with us in this process."
There are bound to be fears, however, that schools and the already stretched psychological services could be placed under severe strain if more youngsters come within the ambit of "additional support needs", as the Executive suggests will happen.
The latest figures, for September 2001, show 19,475 pupils in primary schools with a special educational need, a 24 per cent rise on the previous year. Of these, 4,303 had a formal record of needs.
In secondary schools, 16,077 had a special need, a 6 per cent increase; 4,965 had a record of needs.
But the Executive made it clear that, while the Bill places education authorities under a statutory duty to identify and address additional support needs, they will not have to assess every child formally. They will, however, be expected to demonstrate that they have investigated the reasons for a pupil's lack of progress and taken action. Parents will be entitled to demand that authorities do so.
The Bill sweeps away the complex record of needs for SEN pupils, replacing it with a "co-ordinated support plan". This is described as being only for pupils who need support from a range of services which have to be co-ordinated.
The Executive says that "where support is provided entirely by the school or from within the education authority, then this should be easily managed or co-cordinated by the school and there should be no need for any extra plan".
But parents will be given the right to ask the authority to consider their child for a plan, which will set out targets to achieve and the support to be provided. There will be an annual review of progress.
New rights for parents are proposed in the form of a mediation service to help them reach agreement with the authority and an independent tribunal with sweeping powers to resolve disputes.
An appeal to a tribunal can be prompted where an authority has refused to prepare or to discontinue a co-ordinated support plan. The Bill proposes a right of appeal against a tribunal decision to the Court of Session, but only on a point of law.