Scottish Office intervenes as councils fail to settle differences over special school charges
The Scottish Secretary has stepped in to force the hand of local authorities in setting charges for special school pupils, one of the most intractable legacies of local government reorganisation.
Donald Dewar has effectively ruled in favour of Clackmannan Council which was disputing fees charged by Falkirk Council for 44 pupils with moderate learning difficulties who attended Dawson Park special school in Falkirk.
Falkirk wanted Pounds 9,900 per pupil against Dawson Park's published running costs of Pounds 6,148 for 1997-98. Clackmannan has accepted that actual costs, such as those for property and speech therapy, are slightly higher. The Secretary of State has therefore determined that last session's charge should be Pounds 6,400, a saving of Pounds 154,000.
Mr Dewar's judgment effectively torpedoes efforts by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to set bands of charges that reflect property costs. Inspired by Glasgow, these would have ranged from Pounds 7,500 for a pupil with moderate learning difficulties to Pounds 49,000 for a child with complex needs in a residential school.
Cosla once again failed to break the deadlock at its February education meeting. Some conveners accused others of overcharging.
The Secretary of State's letter on Dawson Park points out that section 23(2) of the 1980 Education (Scotland) Act requires him to take account of the estimated cost of provision. "Whatever the merits may be of a banding system of charging, and it is acknowledged that the councils are not agreed on the merits of such a system, it is clear from the terms of the Act that the Secretary of State cannot adopt the broad-brush approach that a banding system applies."
The Scottish Office does not, however, expect councils to charge the exact cost for each pupil. "The Secretary of State merely has to have regard to estimated costs of such provision," it states.
Keir Bloomer, Clackmannan's director of education, told The TES Scotland:
"I am pleased at the outcome and hope that it will lay the basis for determining a more sensible charging policy."
Graeme Young, director in Falkirk, commented: "I am disappointed at the Secretary of State's finding and feel that Cosla's efforts to achieve a national system of banded charges will be made much more difficult."
A Cosla working party was due to meet yesterday (Thursday) to try to hammer out a consensus.
This is the second time that the Scottish Secretary has been asked to settle cross-border charges for special needs. Mr Dewar turned down a plea from East Lothian which was in dispute with Edinburgh over an agreement between the four former Lothian councils.
The Scottish Office said, however, that it would be prepared to step in if the agreement was found to be flawed.