Costs play role in failure to create CSPs

19th December 2008 at 00:00

Local authorities have been sharply criticised in Parliament by a leading Government official for failing to put together co-ordinated support plans for youngsters with special needs.

Only around one in five of the plans anticipated when the legislation was drawn up have been created, which was "simply not good enough", Robin McKendrick, head of the Government's support for learning division, told the parliamentary education committee. A working group will meet in January, consisting of local authorities who have a "reasonable" number of CSPs and those "at the other end of the scale", he said.

Implementing a CSP is legally binding once an authority agrees to set one up, under the Additional Support for Learning Act. Costs are therefore a key factor. It was recognised that greater co-ordination was necessary where there was significant input from a range of professionals, such as speech and language therapists, educational psychologists and social workers. The CSPs are also intended to give parents a "key worker" as a point of contact to help make sense of the services involved.

It was expected that there would be around 11,200 to 13,700 CSPs at any one time in Scotland, but just over 2,000 exist.

Mr McKendrick was giving evidence to the education committee on a bill which aims to close loopholes in the ASL Act. The bill gives parents of children with additional support needs the same right as others to make out-of-area placing requests for their children, and it reinforces the powers of the additional support needs tribunal which are designed to resolve disputes between parents and councils.

But the parent advocacy group, Independent Special Education Advice (ISEA) Scotland, which handles most cases going before the tribunals, claimed the bill failed to address some of the most "fundamental flaws" of the act. And Children in Scotland described the changes as "significant but relatively narrow".

The latter called for six additional changes to the bill, including the right of parents to advocacy and support to be coupled with a new duty on the Government to provide it.

"Parents also have the right to independent mediation, and the ASL legislation accompanies that right with a duty on local government to provide independent mediation," said Jonathan Sher, the charity's policy and research director. "With the right to advocacy or support, there is no accompanying duty - so the right becomes fairly hollow."

The lack of support available for parents, according to ISEA, had led to families taking out loans to pay for legal representation; one parent even sold personal items on eBay.

ISEA said in written evidence: "Local authorities use tax payers' money to employ advocates, commission expert reports and engage anything from four to six witnesses to support their case, as well as having access at any time to their legal department."

Mr McKendrick admitted that tribunals had become increasingly adversarial but argued: "It would not be the best approach to seek to equalise the situation by having solicitors on both sides."

The Government has commissioned the Govan Law Centre to run developmental courses for volunteer advocacy organisations. It will report at the end of January, and Mr Mc Kendrick said a decision would be made whether further steps would be taken to provide advocacy services.

SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson, deputy convener of the education committee, said he hoped the Scottish Government would "put advocacy services on a much sounder footing".

He continued: "Everyone wants those parents who are least able to make their case for financial or other reasons to be able to fulfil their duty to their child, and have access to those support mechanisms."

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