Level the playing field
Lack of consistency is the biggest problem affecting the implementation of the Additional Support for Learning Act in the three years since it was passed, the annual conference of the national advice service Enquire heard this week.
Although there is now greater awareness of what the legislation means, delegates at the conference in Inverness heard there is too much unevenness in the way it is applied.
Mike Gibson, head of the Scottish Government's Support for Learning Division, called for improvements in the interpretation of the legislation, particularly in relation to co-ordinated support plans.
Although there has been a 43 per cent increase in the number of CSPs agreed, from 1,881 in 2007 to 2,694 in 2008, there is still a significant variation between councils, he said.
Government figures show that in both Midlothian and South Lanarkshire, only 0.15 per cent of the school population has a CSP, compared to 1.19 per cent in Dumfries and Galloway.
A working group is due to report to the Education Secretary in the next few weeks on this disparity and is expected to come up with a better definition of what constitute "significant" support needs. Variations in the interpretation of "significant" are thought to lie behind the differences among authorities.
But Elisabeth Ritchie, assistant chief inspector with HMIE, urged people not to get too "hung up" on the definition of "significant" additional needs. Instead, they should take a more child-focused approach and think more about what the child needed.
"Cost ought not to be an issue," Dr Gibson said. "If some authorities can do it (meet the cost of CSPs), why can't more of them? Dumfries and Galloway seems to manage - and it is one of the smaller authorities - so giving children a statutory plan should not be a problem for others. It was all costed via the financial memorandum and money put into the system."
He also felt that 2008 figures, showing that only 1.8 per cent of young people had mental health problems, were probably an under estimate.
With the ASL Act currently being amended by the Scottish Parliament, Dr Gibson anticipated that problems relating to placing requests and other parental rights would be resolved.
The Government was also keen to discourage education authorities and parents from employing lawyers to represent them at independent additional support needs tribunals, he added. There was "no evidence of legal representation (at ASN tribunals) conferring an advantage", he suggested.
Out of 50 hearings, parents had been legally represented on 12 and "won" five, and education authorities had been legally represented on 21 and "won" 11. Legal representation went against the spirit of the Act, Dr Gibson suggested.
Adam Ingram, the Children and Early Years Minister, was considering introducing a requirement on authorities to inform parents about their rights to mediation and dispute resolution, said Dr Gibson. Parents had made only 38 applications for dispute resolution by independent adjudicators in the past three years (with two being withdrawn) - implying that there should have been more referrals.
Ms Ritchie told the conference that schools were now much better at the staged intervention process of identifying when a child needed support and from whom. In the past, intervention tended to be more "ad hoc", she said.
But there was, again, too big a variation between authorities and even between schools in how well they dealt with the language problems of "new Scots" - children who had English as an additional language.
Another area of uneven practice was in the support of children with social and emotional behavioural difficulties. "We know more of the things that work," said Ms Ritchie. "It's getting consistency and getting things embedded that is difficult."