More than 9,000 of Scotland's pupils require special educational attention. Under the new education bill in the name of inclusion, many will now be absorbed into mainstream schools. Raymond Ross visits one school regarded as a model of good practice.
Kevin Herron, a sixth year pupil at St Margaret's High School in Airdrie, is a peer tutor in home economics where he helps Secondary 1 and 2 pupils with special educational needs (SEN).
"I'm helping young people to do better in life and it's good to be able to make a difference," he says. "Sometimes it's easier for them to talk to me than to a teacher because I'm younger and I've been there.
"They mostly worry about exams and homework but because they get to know you they'll sometimes come with other problems too."
St Margaret's peer support system was established seven years ago and uses S6 pupils in all subject areas under the guidance of the class teacher and after each has received some training - and regular monitoring - in listening and interpretation skills.
"The SEN pupils benefit, the S6 pupils get a module in community involvement and it's good for the school's ethos of achievement for all," says Tom Connelly, assistant headteacher in charge of learning support at St Margaret's, a school regarded by many as a model of good practice when it comes to special needs and social inclusion.
Peer support is one of many strategies adopted by St Margaret's to help the growing number of SEN pupils coming to the school, a number likely to increase here as elsewhere in the light of the Scottish Executive's "presumption" in the education bill in favour of mainstream education for all.
The latest available figures show there were 9,345 pupils in Scotland attending special schools in 1998 (640 fewer than in 1989) and 8,420 pupils with a record of needs in mainstream schools.
If a significant proportion of those 9,345 pupils is to be absorbed into the mainstream, schools will have to adapt.
St Margaret's is already some way down this road, not in response to the Government's social inclusion policy, but to the local need for a coherent policy for pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties as well as learning difficulties.
"A coherent support for learning policy will be crucial for all schools in the light of the education bill's presumption," says Carol Quay, principal teacher of learning support at St Margaret's since 1987.
With a role of 1,300, St Margaret's has only 11 pupils with needs but of this year's S1 intake, 30 per cent are working at level D (below 12 year old level), and of those some 10 per cent are working at or below the level of seven years old, says Miss Quay.
"Central to the school's inclusion policy is the need to foster ownership for all staff and not just learning support," she adds.
"It's about good practice, about keeping up your awareness of curriculum barriers ad how to overcome them.
"It's about moving away from the attitude that there is something wrong with a pupil with SEN.
"The difficulty lies with pupils who have quite significant learning needs. We respond by looking at individualised education programmes for each pupil and the class teacher's role is to plan for these needs, to look at the objectives in courses and see which are relevant for a particular pupil... setting short-term targets within an individual pupil's plan, which is already well established in most schools."
Formalised support in St Margaret's begins with primary liaison and with priority given to S1 intake where classes are shadowed and assessment profiles and support plans drawn up for individual pupils.
The whole school approach involves contracts drawn up between learning support and subject departments, where targets are set within departments for each of the pupils who require their own individualised programme.
"A coherent support plan must look at all of the child's needs, pastoral and educational.
"The class teacher is the first support and ideally there should be a teacher in every department who has a learning support role.
"We use co-operative teaching a lot and only extract pupils on a short-term basis and only for basic numeracy or literacy skills support," says Miss Quay.
St Margaret's also has a pupil support centre, set up in 1995. Fifty volunteer staff were trained by learning support, educational psychology and guidance to become involved in the centre or work on an outreach basis in classes.
The centre is intended to provide appropriate social, emotional and educational support to enable a pupil to return to mainstream education.
Outreach provides pupils and staff with additional advice and back-up to help the majority of youngsters remain in mainstream classes.
Flexible learning and teaching approaches are key to the inclusion of SEN pupils, but Carol Quay is doubtful that total inclusion will work, especially for larger secondary schools.
"A large mainstream school just can't meet the complex needs of some pupils.
"The sheer size of St Margaret's presents problems for pupils who need security and small teaching groups.
"Some of these children will simply just not be able to cope socially with that situation.
"When we first meet with parents of P7 pupils with SENs we explain the position in terms of the support we can offer.
"The majority of parents do follow teacher recommendations with regard to their child going to a mainstream or a special school.
"But at the end of the day parents have the final say even in terms of the new 'presumption'. That's how it is and it's how parents will probably always want it to be."
If you want your say, send us your own views on the issue of integration of special needs pupils, using no more than 200 words, to:Scotlandplus@tes.co.uk