Legislation on children's rights is "a recipe for confusion", Bob McKay, president of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, claimed this week.
Mr McKay told a Government-sponsored conference on special needs that under the new Children Act children over the age of 12 have rights when they attend hearings on their future but have no similar protection under the 1980 Education Act which is used to determine appropriate specialist schooling.
"How do you go to a children's hearing where a young person has got rights and you go to a case conference in the school where they don't?" he asked.
Mr McKay, director of education in Perth and Kinross, was a member of the working party that advised the Scottish Office on the long-awaited guidelines on assessment and recording of special needs. He fears that despite greater precision in the wording of steps to be taken by local authorities when opening records of need decisions will continue to be made on the basis of resources available.
The guidelines, intended to amplify procedures set out 16 years ago, were launched this week in Edinburgh by Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister. About 11,500 children in Scotland currently have records of need, 1.4 per cent of the school population.
Mr Robertson said: "You will not find set criteria for judging when a record should and should not be opened. Nor are there prescriptions about provision for particular categories of special educational need." Authorities would be expected to rely on "professional expertise and judgment".
He appeared to back Labour's recent call for individual learning programmes for all pupils when he stated: "The day may come when education authorities' arrangements for all children with special educational needs are such as to remove the requirement for the extra safeguards provided by recording. I am delighted to endorse the aim of universal appropriate assessment and provision."
Mr McKay, however, warned that too great a focus on recording procedures would be a disservice to other groups with special needs.
Mike Gibson, the HMI responsible for special education, told the conference that 42 per cent of children with records are in mainstream schools. But Mr Gibson pointed out that the pattern varied greatly. In Fife, the figure is one child in six and in Lothian one in three. In Strathclyde, one in two children are in mainstream schooling.