Central funding is the only way

8th October 2010 at 01:00

Devolution brought more democracy to Scotland, so that must be a good thing? Well, in the time honoured saying, "that depends".

It depends on many things, not least the quality of debate. And it depends on the willingness of politicians and the media to challenge the existing consensus and test the word of so-called experts and consultants. I write that as a consultant myself.

Take the case of the specialist schools for children requiring additional support, whose plight The TESS reported last week. It was not devolution's fault that their existence was threatened once before, when the then Labour education minister, Sam Galbraith, decided he wanted to channel the schools' funding through local authorities. Everyone knew this would not reach them in sufficient quantity to make them viable.

Galbraith's officials had tried that manoeuvre a number of times when the Tories were in power, and it was always rejected out-of-hand by ministers.

The trigger for Galbraith's move was simply that officials, presented with a new party in government that would not know its own mind, dusted down the old file and pitched it as a progressive idea.

When serving on the Parliament's education committee, and with Labour and Liberal Democrat members in no mood to embarrass the Scottish Executive, I found myself a lone wolf howling in the wind. It would depend on what the SNP members, Nicola Sturgeon and Mike Russell, decided.

While Sturgeon appeared to favour the local authorities, Russell was more sceptical. After the committee agreed to visit the specialist schools, the hearts and minds of Labour members opened up to the reality that there was a need for a plurality of provision. The Scottish Executive backed down, and the specialist schools were given new tests that they had to meet before being designated a national centre. This status would bring with it central funding to meet half the cost of a pupil's education, with the remaining half coming from the local authorities.

Now, as local authorities are wrestling with the impending financial cuts, eyes are again turning to the funding of places in these national centres.

I have nothing against providing specialist support in a mainstream setting, but I do not believe that it necessarily provides a saving for local authorities, nor do I accept that it is always best for the pupil concerned or the other pupils in the class.

On one visit to a mainstream school, I learnt of a special needs pupil who could, on demand, projectile vomit in a classroom as a threat to staff or pupils, or merely for attention. I recognised this as a challenge few schools were equipped to deal with.

The solution to the ever-present tension between local authorities and specialist schools is for the Scottish Government to recognise that, if it believes that some children do require specialist support at national centres, then the educational funding should come entirely from a national budget stream.

By all means deduct from the local authority the average cost of educating a child that they no longer bear, but recognise that in a civilised country such special children should qualify for special help.

Will Mike Russell finish the job? That depends. It depends on him being re-elected, it depends on the SNP remaining in government and it depends on the seven centres of excellence making their case all over again to yet another review.

Democracy is a treadmill that depends on people of good intentions taking part.

Brian Monteith may be right, but it depends.

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