THE Scottish Executive insists it is giving parents of children with special needs genuine new rights under its draft Additional Support Needs (Scotland) Bill, as well as dragging the legislation into the 21st century.
Funding to meet additional costs is also promised (see panel).
A vocal campaign, centring on the proposed scrapping of the record of needs, is being led by the Independent Special Education Advice Service.
But the Executive believes that Record of Needs Alert is a minority voice.
Parents who have turned out for the seminars run as part of the Bill's consultation "can see the positive side of what we are doing", Mike Gibson, head of additional support needs in the Executive's education department, said.
In an interview with The TES Scotland, Dr Gibson says that new measures are necessary to build on disability legislation which requires not just physical access to school buildings but access to the curriculum as well.
He believes the broader concept of additional support needs provides more support for pupils and parents, while the "co-ordinated support plan" for those who need assistance from outside health and therapy services will be more efffective than the record of needs.
Dr Gibson pointed out that records of needs were opened for just 2.2 per cent of the school population, although this ranged across authorities from 0.7 per cent to 3.7 per cent. Records also focus on learning difficulties; they do not cover pupils with social, emotional and behavioural problems.
"The problem is that nobody knows what the recording rate should be," Dr Gibson said. "Wearing my former HMI hat, we did 'police' the records through inspections contrary to what some have said. But we simply don't know how many children should have records, so policing is not an issue."
He added: "The record of needs doesn't actually tell you anything about what a child is supposed to learn as a consequence of being recorded, and so it doesn't fit easily with the curriculum and assessment changes that have taken place which focus on learning outcomes. So we are trying to move away from simply responding to requests that 'my child needs speech and language therapy' to what the child will be expected to learn after receiving therapy."
Dr Gibson suggests that a co-ordinated support plan will be "a very powerful vehicle" for parents because it will be more focused on learning.
"It extends parent rights; it doesn't strip them away."
Far from courting conflict with parents, Dr Gibson believes the draft Bill, which has another two weeks of public consultation before it comes under parliamentary scrutiny, is an attempt to move away from an adversarial relationship with parents to a more genuine partnership. The Bill introduces a mediation service for the first time and parents will have a right of appeal to a tribunal.
Dr Gibson also takes issue with critics who fear the Bill weakens the arrangements for preparing young people with special needs to leave school.
The existing phrase requiring a "future needs assessment" has been removed, he said, but authorities will be under a legal obligation to plan ahead for all leavers with additional support needs, not just those who are recorded as at present - and to complete their plan no later than six months before the pupil leaves school.
Education authorities will also be under a duty to notify others such as colleges which at present face the prospect of many special needs youngsters turning up with no advance warning from schools that an FE place might be part of their suggested "next steps" in learning.
Critics and friends line up, ScotlandPlus 2-3
PICKING UP THE TAB
A financial memorandum will set out what additional costs will be met by the Executive and how much should be contributed by local authorities and other agencies. No figures are yet available.
The Executive's projected spending on special needs has involved:
* pound;20 million for inclusion in 2003-04 and pound;25 million a year in 2004-06.
* pound;8.4 million each year from 2003-06 for in-service.
* pound;9 million in 2003-04 and pound;17 million a year from 2004-06 to improve access to buildings and the curriculum.