The Scottish Executive unveiled its draft additional support for learning legislation on Wednesday, revealing significant moves to meet parental concerns raised during the consultation period.
The main features remain, principally replacement of the record of needs with a co-ordinated support plan (CSP) for pupils with the most severe behavioural and learning problems. There will be a new mediation process for children with additional support needs and a national appeals tribunal will be introduced for the first time to resolve disputes over the co-ordinated support plan.
But Peter Peacock, Education Minister, has decided to go further and set up a "disputes resolution" mechanism for parents whose child does not have a CSP but who does have additional support needs. Parents will have a new right to demand a particular kind of assessment, such as medical or psychological, not just a general right that their child be assessed.
Mr Peacock commented: "This is a significant Bill to improve support to pupils and I want to make it clear that existing pupils with a record of needs will continue to receive the support they require." He said he was writing to councils this week to make that clear.
Executive officials envisage that changes will not be introduced until 2005. This will depend on the progress of the Bill, on which the parliamentary education committee called for evidence this week as part of its scrutiny.
Time will also be required to change over from the recording process to the CSP. The Executive estimates that there will be fewer pupils with a CSP than the 2 per cent of the school population, around 17,000 youngsters, who are currently recorded. A plan will only be prepared for those with the severest problems who are judged to need help from agencies beyond the school such as health and social work.
But the co-ordinated support plan will cover pupils excluded from recording such as those with social and behavioural problems. The record of needs requires a summary of "impairments" which confines its scope to those with learning and disability difficulties.
The net costs of these measures will be an additional pound;3 million for local authorities, a similar amount for health boards and pound;770,000 for the Executive which will include the costs of setting up the national tribunal service.
But the bill which will fall on education authorities does not include the costs of plugging gaps in existing services. Steps have been taken to boost the number of psychologists in training but ministers acknowledge there is concern about shortages of speech, language and occupational therapists.
Executive officials believe none the less that they have come up with a set of measures which are more comprehensive but also more precise than the current arrangements.
Critics remain concerned, however, over whether there is enough "muscle" in the draft Bill to bring parents a real new deal. Capability Scotland says it does not provide sufficient guarantees that additional help will be provided. It wants statutory responsibilities to be imposed on health and social work agencies to ensure young people receive the help they require, not just on the education authorities.
Capability Scotland is particularly concerned at the inclusion of a get-out clause which states that local authorities do not have to do anything that is not "practicable at reasonable cost".
It suggests this could lead to a postcode lottery with wide variations depending on where parents live. But the organisation's call for a code of practice has already been answered by the Executive's pledge to set minimum standards. Currently recording rates vary considerably from less than 1 per cent in some authorities to more than 3 per cent in others.
The Executive is backing up the Bill with information leaflets aimed at professionals and parents; there will be a schoolbag drop with 750,000 copies of a guide for parents who will also have access to a telephone helpline (0845 123 2303).