The Government is to give local authorities almost Pounds 1 million a year to provide for pre-school children with special needs. Ministers have resisted a proposal to give higher value nursery vouchers to parents with handicapped children.
Announcing the extra money, which will be added to the local government finance settlement for the year starting in April, Raymond Robertson, the Education Minister, said: "By entering the education system earlier, those with special educational needs will be identified at a younger age and will get the support they need. This could lead to some extra demands on authorities. "
Topping up the Pounds 1,100 vouchers which will be available to parents of all four-year-olds from August has been rejected because assessments of individual children whose needs may be only moderate or transient would be intrusive and difficult.
Councils will be able to use the extra funding for any child whose needs require support. They already have a responsibility to identify children aged two or more who require a record of needs and to ensure suitable provision for them.
There is no evidence yet, according to the Scottish Office, of what extra resources are needed. The new grant is to meet contingencies.
Sally Brown, professor of education at Stirling University, who is monitoring Scotland's four pilot voucher schemes, is about to undertake a survey of 1,000 parents including some whose children are handicapped.
Ministers point out that under-fives who attend grant-aided or independent special schools will benefit from double-funding. Such cases, which usually involve children with more severe needs, are disregarded when calculating local authority funds to be channelled through the voucher system. The children will receive full value vouchers.
When the Scottish Office invited local authorities to bid for the pilot voucher schemes in December 1995, it asked how extensively providers in the private and voluntary sectors were expected to provide for special needs.