CONTRACTING its service for problem pupils to a leading children's charity may have saved Dumfries and Galloway nearly pound;1 million, it was claimed this week.
As the Education Minister moves to take a proactive interest in discipline and exclusions, he will be particularly interested in the council's deal with the Aberlour Child Care Trust to support secondary-aged pupils who have been repeatedly excluded from school and are at risk of being sent to a residential school.
A highly positive evaluation by Stirling University on the initiative, known as Crannog, showed that the service had substantially reduced the number of children sent to residential schools, saving pound;34,000 per pupil. Only three of 61 youngsters were sent to residential schools, yet 51 per cent of them were initially considered to be at risk of ending up in one.
Stirling University estimates that this could have saved the authority anything from pound;680,000 to pound;986,000. Dumfries and Galloway has now agreed a further three-year contract with the trust, which operates 46 projects mainly for disabled and troubled youngsters and their families.
The aim is to help young people return to or remain in mainstream education.
Aberlour attributes its success to intensive one-to-one work, involving young people in assessing their own needs and planning to meet these. The Stirling University evaluation said a key feature was "the development of a personal, consistent (but not uncritical) relationship with their Crannog worker which was important to the young people themselves and welcomed by their families and teachers".
In an echo of many such studies drawing on the responses of young people, the study found that they valued the opportunities to exercise choice "and the way staff treated them with respect and as individuals". The teachers interviewed had no doubt that there were significant improvements in behaviour and that this was attributed to the Crannog regime.
But the study also warned that the success of the initiative could jeopardise future developments as the service comes under pressure to be extended to more secondary pupils and to younger children.
Stuart Beck, Dumfries and Galloway's manager with responsibility for special education and children's social services, admitted that bringing in the Aberlour Trust had been the result of an attempt "to change the existing culture where services provided by the council were viewed by children's panels as inflexible and failing".
Addressing a conference on Monday entitled "From Margins to Mainstream", which showcased the Crannog initiative, Mr Beck said it had also been prompted by an unexpected increase in the number of pupils being placed in residential schools, leading to "a rather mind-concentrating" pound;1.5 million overspend in the budget.
He added: "Although the residential school budget remains volatile and emergency placements can and still do occur, Crannog has certainly helped to bring it under more manageable control and broadly within budget."
But Mr Beck warned that such developments could be set at nought because of shortages of key staff such as educational psychologists, childcare social workers and speech therapists. This was particularly acute in rural areas.
PATHS TO SAFETY
* Crannog - a Scottish Iron Age dwelling set in a bog or loch which offered high levels of security with access to land through a network of underwater causeways. Hence the description for a service that offers secure support for vulnerable youngsters with access to the mainstream.