INDEPENDENT special schools have been told by local authorities to ditch unrealistic fee hikes of up 26 per cent.
A long-standing wrangle over fees has resurfaced after rises ranging from 2 per cent to 26 per cent were set without the agreement of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The schools cater for pupils with some of the most severe learning difficulties.
Councils, already struggling with budgets, hit back by advising that increases should be no more than 2.5 per cent, the rate set for last year. Fees for individual pupils average over pound;35,000 a year and can top pound;100,000.
David Henderson, Cosla's head of policy development, warned in a letter: "A continuing area of difficulty is that the schools are not prepared to concede that their fee levels should be influenced by councils. Their representatives are clear that it is for each school to set its own fees and we have not detected any real movement from that position to reflect a purchaser-provider context to fee-setting, such as councils have put in place for community care."
The authorities are particularly irked that they were notified of the increases only a few days after Cosla met the Scottish Independent Special Schools Group, which represents 22 of the schools and had not given any indication hefty rises were in the pipeline. In his letter, Mr Henderson said councils viewed the increases with "deep concern".
Phil Barton, head of Starley Hall School in Burntisland and chair of the spcial schools group, was none the less hopeful of an early resolution. "We are caught between a rock and a hard place," Mr Barton said. "Our fees are set to provide the quality of services required by HMI and by the local authority registration process. On the other hand, we recognise that councils are on tight budgets. The key priority for us is to ensure we are meeting the often very complex and demanding needs of young people."
He said it was "unhelpful" to portray fee increases in percentage terms: a 26 per cent rise could be less than one of 2 per cent depending on the starting point and individual fee levels. The job of the special schools was "to take tension out of chaos for young people and we need to bring those same professional skills to our management tasks in co-operation with Cosla".
Councils acknowledge there will always be a role for the independent sector in providing for highly specialised needs, but they have increasingly been moving towards the use of local provision for educational as well as financial reasons.
Children's panels frequently place young people who appear before them in independent special schools and Mr Henderson has written to the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration alerting it to the prospect that councils might not be able to fund some placements.
Cosla has also written to the Scottish Executive, saying only it can bridge the gap between what can be afforded by councils and the rates currently proposed.