Last-ditch plea goes unheeded

29th May 2009 at 01:00
Amendments to new act could see costs for ASL soar, putting authorities in greater financial straits

Additional support for learning - already one of the five biggest funding pressures on education authorities - could become even more expensive, councils have warned, as a result of last-minute amendments to the ASL Bill which passed into law last week.

Isabel Hutton, Cosla's spokesperson for education, children and young people, made an unsuccessful last-ditch appeal to MSPs and the Parliament's Presiding Officer, asking them not to pass stage 3 of the ASL Bill.

Cosla, the local authority umbrella organisation, was broadly supportive of the bill as originally drafted and the "relatively modest" costs attached to it, she says.

However, councils fear that the legislation would lead to more placement requests and associated cost burdens have "proved to be well founded", she claims.

The Presiding Officer estimates the cost of printing and disseminating information on parental rights at pound;50,000; Cosla puts it at around pound;1 million.

An amendment at stage 2 of the legislative process widened the scope of the bill to include non-education support - a change which would place councils under a duty to make much broader provision for children under three.

"We would argue strongly that the key role that councils should play in supporting disabled children under three is in terms of their education," Councillor Hutton said in her letter to MSPs. "It is inappropriate and unreasonable, therefore, to expect councils to apply the wider definitions of ASL to disabled children under three years old.

"We are also concerned that these amendments could add very significant cost burdens to councils to provide intensive support, beyond education, to such children."

Cosla also opposed a proposal to require councils to publish the cost of ASL support annually "at a time when ring fences around funding have been removed and the focus has shifted from measuring narrow inputs to measuring improved outcomes".

She added: "We see little value in having to adjust accounting systems to monitor a single policy area to provide information which will tell very little about the quality of services and the outcomes they deliver."

The warning on costs comes at a time when some councils have already cut their ASL budgets despite facing greater demands on their services.

Last week, Highland Council's education, culture and sport committee approved plans to cut ASL funding by pound;420,000 over the next two years. Between 2006-08, it had set itself a target of cutting this budget by pound;630,000 but succeeded in cutting only pound;410,000.

Hugh Fraser, Highland's director of education, acknowledges that there are increasing pressures, at four levels: support for pupils in schools; support to schools; support for pupils with high levels of need; and requests for support or advice from families. "Although teachers and support staff are very strongly committed to principles of inclusion, headteachers report that some staff are now becoming discouraged and frustrated because they feel that, as a consequence of reductions in staffing, it is no longer possible to meet the needs of some pupils in mainstream schools and teaching groups," he said.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, commented: "The feeling going into the next financial year is quite pessimistic, and a number of authorities are looking in a strategic way at the whole service, recognising the need to re-engineer departments, services and so on."

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