Aberdeen has been warned not to force special school pupils into mainstream classes as "a cloak for savings". Consultations with teachers and parents have revealed considerable wariness over the city's "inclusive" approach of educating all pupils together as far as possible.
A policy report approved last week warns: "There is a strong preference to retain what is considered to be well-tried existing provision until new approaches to inclusion are properly established. It is seen to be unacceptable to force parents and children to move towards integrated provision. Again, there is a desire to retain choice between mainstream and special school provision."
The report emphatically rejected any charge of cost-cutting by the back door, arguing that "inclusion in mainstream may be marginally more expensive than special school provision because of economies of scale in the latter. However these educational costs may well be offset by savings on non-educational expenditure, eg taxi contracts and escorts."
The committee took on board other concerns about not adding to teacher workload and more general reservations by agreeing to phase in changes over a six-year period.
John Stodter, Aberdeen's director of education, said the authority started from the principle that as many children as possible should be educated in their local school. This strategy is increasingly being adopted throughout Scotland. Mr Stodter said: "Parents who believe their child ought to be exempt should be expected to make their case rather than the other way round. To argue for exclusion, in other words, not inclusion."
The report acknowledges that parent and teacher views may be influenced by unsatisfactory experiences of mainstream education for special needs pupils. The risk of vulnerable children being bullied also weighs heavily.
"It may take another generation before a policy of inclusion gains widespread acceptance," Mr Stodter said.
The council has, however, guaranteed a future for at least two of the three special schools which educate pupils with moderate learning difficulties: Beechwood, Marlpool and Kingslea. Its plan envisages a quick move to establish a 40-place special needs base in at least one large primary and another 40 places in a secondary unit. One or more primary and secondary bases could be added each year and special school placements reduced.
The report stresses that a policy of inclusion "does not seek to remove the right of headteachers to recommend exclusion where this is essential for the safety of pupils and staff as well as supporting a positive climate of discipline".
The final message from headteachers is for changes to be fully resourced. "Please do not abuse the goodwill factor," they say.