Councils feeling the pinch in the economic downturn may attempt to "export" children with special needs, politicians have been warned.
One of the central aims of the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004 was to give the parents of children with additional support needs the same rights as others to make placing requests to schools in other authorities for their children
A court ruling, however, cast into doubt that original intention, according to the Scottish Government. Now the position has been clarified by a Bill being scrutinised by the Parliament's education committee, which aims to close the loopholes in the Act. It gives parents the right to go direct to an authority other than their home one and request their child be placed in one if its schools.
However, directors of education and authorities fear, in the current economic climate, that cash-strapped councils may encourage parents to request their child be placed in schools outside their boundaries in order to save money; not because it is in the best interests of the child.
Bryan Kirkaldy, a representative of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland and senior manager in education and children's services in Fife, said there would be a "perverse incentive" for local authorities not to make effective provision for children with additional support needs if it were possible for parents to choose to go to another local authority. This could, he continued, compromise mainstreaming.
Martin Vallely, service manager for professional service at Edinburgh City Council, agreed. In written evidence, he claimed the Bill could "unintentionally incentivise the 'export' of complex needs".
Glasgow City Council expressed similar fears. It said that "at a time of financial stringency, some authorities may see a value in encouraging parents to make a placing request to another authority". Glasgow would be attractive to parents, the council felt, because of its high number of specialist schools and units. The result could be a shortage of places for its own children, it argued.
However, a special needs child from Glasgow being educated outside the city could also be problematic, said Cameron Munro, the city's senior solicitor for education. "A parent could say that they want their child to go to a school in Aberdeen, even though all other support, from social work, other council departments and the health board, is based in the west of Scotland."
Other authorities claimed their ability to provide services for children with additional support needs could be undermined if too many parents opted to apply for places in schools in other councils. Argyll and Bute said it was a "fallacy" that giving the parents of children with special needs the same rights as others to make placing requests in any school in any authority would make life better for the youngsters.
Ted Jefferies, principal educational psychologist, argued parents seeking places outside their own council area could well erode the home authority's ability to cater for special needs youngsters by robbing it of the "critical mass" needed to provide services.
According to Robin McKendrick, head of the Government's support for learning division, the proposals put neither "an exporting authority", nor "an importing authority" at a disadvantage: "If 10 pupils move from schools in East Lothian to Edinburgh, the next time that the school census data are used to calculate the local government settlement - the allocations will be in 2011 and 2012 - those pupils will appear in Edinburgh's pupil count. As a result, Edinburgh will get a slightly larger share of those grant-aided expenditure lines and East Lothian will get a slightly smaller share, all other things being equal. The additionality for children with additional support needs can be claimed back under Section 23 of the 1980 Act."
Mr Vallely said: "Section 23 makes provision for the host authority to seek to recover the costs, but there is no obligation on the home authority to pay those costs."
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The Scottish Government is considering further amendments to the ASL Bill, including a clarification of the meaning of "significant" additional support needs, since there seems to be a wide variation in authorities' interpretation.
Adam Ingram, Minister for Children and Early Years, told the education committee last week that his plans, included:
- giving additional support needs tribunals the right to adjudicate on placing requests for a special school, even where the child did not have a co-ordinated support plan;
- giving parents the right to request an assessment of their child's needs at any time;
- and giving the tribunal the right to specify when a co-ordinated support plan should begin.
Mr Ingram said he thought it was right that a host authority could send the bill to a home authority for the costs of educating a child with special needs on an out-of-authority placing request. This also acted as an incentive for the home authority to develop special needs provision within its own area, he said.
There were only two authorities - Glasgow and East Renfrewshire - which appeared to have problems with arrangements for cross-border placing requests, he said.
Mr Ingram added that before the Bill goes before Parliament, he expected to see a report from a working group looking at co-ordinated support plans - and why fewer CSPs than anticipated had been set up by authorities.