Councils are not taking even the most basic steps to make the parents of children with additional support needs aware of their rights, claims an inclusion and diversity expert.
In a survey of 27 local authorities, conducted by Edinburgh University, almost half (11) were found to have failed to inform parents of their entitlement to mediation and dispute resolution via their websites.
This was unacceptable, particularly in the modern era when many parents would begin their quest for information online, said Sheila Riddell, director of the Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity at the Moray House School of Education.
"Only a minority of local authorities make their additional support needs policy accessible and only a small number tell parents of the existence of mediation and Enquire, the national advice service. If you were being conspiratorial you might imagine authorities didn't want to tell parents about this," she said.
Under the Additional Support for Learning Act, 2004, parents have the right to seek mediation to resolve disputes with local authorities and avoid courts and tribunals, which are judged to be expensive, time-consuming and stressful.
The research found, however, that there had been no requests for mediation in one-fifth of the authorities they surveyed and fewer than five requests in more than half. Only 4 per cent had received more than 10 requests. "We suspect the reason for this is parents of children with additional support needs are not aware it is possible," said Professor Riddell.
Research by the parent advocacy group Independent Special Education Advice (ISEA) Scotland found that more than 75 per cent of parents were unaware they could request mediation, and 80 per cent had no or poor information on their right to request dispute resolution.
In recent evidence to the Parliament's education committee, councils argued that advertising dispute resolution services could send out the wrong message.
Ted Jefferies, principal educational psychologist with Argyll and Bute Council, said: "ISEA's point may be valid in the sense that we do not have big posters in all our schools that say, 'You can access dispute resolution about additional support needs by using this service'. However, I am not sure that we really want that to be the flavour in our schools."
Martin Vallely, service manager of Edinburgh City Council's professional services, claimed parents found mediation too formal. "We have funded a parents' organisation to provide advice and information as well as advocacy to parents, and we find that parents make more ready use of that more informal service than they do of the mediation that is provided under the 2004 Act."
Nevertheless, Adam Ingram, Minister for Children and Early Years, signalled the Scottish Government's intention to strengthen the obligation on local authorities to inform parents of their rights under the ASL Act. He stressed the need for consistency across the country. "I am still astonished at people's lack of awareness about their rights - despite all the statutory duties that are placed on local authorities and others to inform people of their rights," he told the Parliament's education committee.
The Edinburgh University research also found that middle-class parents were considered more likely by councils to disagree with them about the provision being made for their child than parents from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.