The number of disabled children whose families are locked in disputes over education services is predicted to grow sharply as cash-strapped authorities reduce assistance for students with additional support needs (ASN), according to education law specialist Govan Law Centre.
A new national advocacy service, Let's Talk ASN, to be run by Govan Law Centre and charity Kindred, will be launched on 1 April to replace the existing Take Note service. The centre expects a "significant increase" in referrals regarding ASN issues, the most serious of which can mean that children end up missing school for several months. According to the centre, calls to its own education law helpline have risen from 638 in 2011-12 to 1,159 after only 11 months of this financial year - and the vast majority have been related to ASN issues. The final figure is expected to reach up to 1,400 calls.
Iain Nisbet, head of education law at the centre, said that calls frequently came from parents or disability groups concerned that a service had been withdrawn after funding had disappeared or a staff member had been redeployed.
Calls covered the "full spectrum" of needs, he explained, and might mean that a child with a sensory impairment could not follow a teacher's instructions, or that a student with complex medical needs would no longer have someone to assist with taking medicine. In one case he knew of, a child who required oxygen to be administered lost specialist support and subsequently missed two months of lessons, returning later only on a part-time basis.
"A child can end up missing months of school or there may be a requirement for the parent to come in and effectively do the job, which is not possible in every case," Mr Nisbet said.
Another common issue was insufficient support as disabled teenagers moved into adulthood, with some councils neglecting their duty to plan for that transition. "We get a lot of calls from people in May or June saying `My child's leaving school in a month and we don't know what they're going on to'," he said.
The new service's recruits include Glasgow's former head of special educational needs, Margaret Orr. It is now seeking volunteer advocates, including teachers, to deal with demand.
But Mr Nisbet stressed that there were "plenty of examples of good practice" around ASN education in Scotland. "Certainly, we're not saying that the system is universally bad," he said.
Dave Hayhurst from Tain, in Highland, went to Govan Law Centre when he and his wife were unable to get their severely disabled son, Alfie-Ray, into what they believed was the best school for him. Alfie-Ray, 6, has autism, sensory processing disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and is almost entirely non-verbal. His parents were told just before Christmas that no space was available at the school, but in late February a place materialised after the centre intervened.
"We would fight to the death for our son, but other parents, like single parents, don't have the time or the energy to get into a battle - I feel very sorry for them," Mr Hayhurst said.
Alex Orr, policy adviser for the Scottish Children's Services Coalition (SCSC), said that a rise in demand for ASN services was natural, given earlier diagnosis of conditions such as autism and better survival rates for children with complex needs.
"However, this is set against a background of local authority cuts, something we as a coalition have been lobbying hard to reverse, leaving many parents feeling angry and frustrated that their children's requirements are not being satisfactorily met," he said.
Earlier this month the SCSC revealed huge disparities around Scotland in the number of children recorded with additional needs. Answering a parliamentary question from Liberal Democrat spokesman Liam McArthur on the subject last week, learning minister Alasdair Allan said that since 2010 there had been a large increase in recorded ASN students, and that some support provided by schools might not appear on their information systems.
The Advisory Group for Additional Support for Learning would meet next month to consider issues such as data collection, he added.