SPECIAL schools received a rare but emphatic endorsement from Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, in a speech in Stirling this week which was otherwise devoted to the importance of providing for special needs in mainstream schools.
The latest national figures show that parents are still in the dark about many aspects of special education and Mr Galbraith is known to be concerned that they face conflict with officialdom while battling to bring up their children in difficult circumstances.
He is therefore vesting considerable hopes in Enquire, the advice service for special educational needs whose first annual conference he was addressing.
While agreeing that special schools have a role, which anticipated criticism from his Tory shadow, Mr Galbraith reiterated the official view that the new "presumption" that all children with special needs should be educated in mainstream classes can be accomplished "in all but the most exceptional of cases".
This has led to fears for the future of special schools, which are attended by just 1 per cent of the school population. But Mr Galbraith stressed that decisions must be taken in the best interests of the child. "If we do that, we'll get it right," he said.
Although the mainstreaming policy now has statutory backing in the Standards in Scotland's Schools Act, Mr Galbraith said the continuation of special schools was important to provide specialist expertise for complex or severe needs and to allow parents choice.
"Our overriding principle is that we want our children and young people to experience an education hich meets their needs," he said. "I am aware that sometimes pupils in special schools have a more inclusive educational experience than some of those in mainstream schools. Mainstream schools can learn from best practice in special schools."
Mr Galbraith announced that a "significant" research project would get under way later in the year to prepare a guide of good practice on inclusion.
Carole Moore, who heads the Enquire service, said that successful provision for SEN pupils in primary schools often "falls apart" by the time they reach secondary and has to be renegotiated. Planning ahead should begin towards the end of primary 6.
Some pound;12 million is being ploughed into education authority budgets to help with the costs of adapting mainstream school buildings and facilities. "It is also vital that schools are given the support they need to ensure that pupils are fully engaged with the school curriculum and in the life of the school. They are not add-ons to the school," Mr Galbraith said.
He revealed that more than 13,000 teachers had in-service training courses in special educational needs last year, compared with 4,000 the previous year.
The virtues of full inclusion were stressed by Lorna MacLeod, head of Haddington infant school which was praised by HMI for successful integration policies in both nursery and infant classes.
But Mrs MacLeod warned that inclusive approaches would not work without the full commitment of all staff, from teachers to the janitor. Inclusion should evolve into something that is "natural, instinctive and unremarkable".