Grant-aided sector victim of wary councils
At the Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld, pupils are conspicuous by their absence.
At morning assembly, there are barely half-a-dozen children being supported to take part in today's task - to plant a bulb. We move to the hydrotherapy pool, where there are just two children in the water; in physiotherapy, there are just four youngsters.
The pupils have been spread thinly to let the visitors see the facilities and how they are used. But there are only eight children currently registered in the centre's nursery and school, which takes youngsters up to the age of eight. The roll could comfortably be quadrupled, admits director Pat Salter.
There is no doubt the facilities at Craighalbert are impressive. This is Getting it Right for Every Child in action (the national policy framework), and it is the norm for multi-professional teams to work together, says Professor Salter.
It is not all doom and gloom, however. One success story has been the centre's flexible programme covering babies to 18-year-olds, which sees 40 youngsters join the centre for one week every term. It has grown significantly in recent years.
Flexible working and diversification seems to be what the future holds for Scotland's grant-aided special schools.
Since the Additional Support for Learning Act, and its presumption that children should be educated in their local school, councils have invested heavily in facilities and staff.
Janice MacNeill, principal of Donaldson's school for the deaf in Linlithgow, admits some councils are now doing work previously conducted in the grant-aided sector "exceptionally well".
This, coupled with the financial crisis, means local authorities are reluctant to pay for out-of-authority placements which can cost thousands a year - Donaldson's charges pound;25,801 for a day pupil.
Capability Scotland, which runs Corseford and Stanmore House, saw its schools' rolls halve in five years.
Local children going to local schools is a good thing, the organisation believes, and now it is in the process of carving out a new niche for itself, helping the most disabled children.
The pressures are mounting, in part due to medical advances. Over the past five years, more low birth-weight babies are surviving, but they are also living with more complex conditions, says Mark Bevan, head of education at Capability.
Some of these youngsters need to be on ventilators or have multiple and serial seizures. Capability has therefore built up a high ratio of nursing to education staff in its schools.
"Without such services on site, these children would spend a lot of time in hospital," Mr Bevan said.
Numbers at Capability's schools will drop a little more, he predicts, but ultimately they may rise. Low birth-weight babies were increasingly likely to survive, but there had been no significant planning in Scotland to cater for their needs, said Mr Bevan.
Other grant-aided special schools are also looking to adapt. Donaldson's currently caters for 61 pupils but could take 120. It recently moved to a new pound;23.5 million facility in Linlithgow, which boasts a 24-bed residence, but one block of eight beds has never been used, laments Mrs MacNeill.
It is now looking to attract more pupils from the north of England, but it is also diversifying, says Mrs MacNeill, offering outreach, developing training and planning a post-19 unit for deaf children.
The Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, meanwhile, is offering part-time enrolment, so youngsters attend their local school but also develop skills specific to their needs: reading Braille, developing mobility, working on independent living skills.
Bursts of intensive education lasting for months or years to prepare pupils for mainstream would also be possible, says principal Julie Shylan.
The school leaders, however, feel that there is a perception in local authorities that, once a child joins a grant-aided school, they will be there until they leave aged 18 - if not later.
They want a more "trusting" partnership, they say.
Mrs MacNeill continues: "In the future, we hope there will be the opportunity for transparent, open and honest discussion with local authorities to help us identify the gaps they need us to help them fill, and for us to become an agency they trust when we say `this child would benefit from one more year here'."
`THE LAST RESORT'
Two grant-aided schools bucking the trend and full to capacity are East Park School in Glasgow and Harmeny in Balerno, both of which cater for children with behavioural problems
At East Park, 95 per cent of pupils have autism. The school used to cater mainly for children with significant physical disabilities but, six years ago, they decided to change focus.
Headteacher Linda Gray says: "Young people with physical disabilities are easier to support in the mainstream setting because they generally don't have behavioural challenges. Our youngsters have challenges in terms of their behaviour, which means they just can't be accommodated anywhere else. For most of our young people, we are the last resort."
Meanwhile, councils pay for Harmeny's services because of its track record but also because they have no equivalent resource, says chief executive Neil Squires.
Scotland has seven grant-aided special schools which receive half their funding from the Scottish Government and half from councils.
The schools are the Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld, for pupils with motor impairment; Donaldson's in Linlithgow, for pupils who are deaf or have severe communication difficulties; the Royal School for the Blind in Edinburgh; Capability Scotland's Corseford and Stanmore House schools in Kilbarchan and Lanark, for children with complex needs; East Park School in Glasgow for children with additional support needs, including autism; and Harmeny School in Balerno for children with social, emotional and behavioural problems.