Special educational needs budgets are essentially victims of their own success. More awareness of needs among parents and professionals, earlier identification of problems, improved provision and changes in the law are stretching budgets beyond expectations.
Councils are collectively spending around pound;35 million more than the Scottish Executive allocation for special education, a financial reality that means bailing out this highly emotive area from their own coffers. Something else has to give.
This year, local authorities are set to spend pound;214 million, or 20 per cent above Government support of pound;179 million. Add in an pound;80 million overspend on social work budgets for children and families, which includes elements of special educational needs, and it is obvious councils have difficult questions to answer.
The Executive counters that it is contributing an additional pound;6 million for mainstreaming support and a further pound;5 million for staff development. But there is never enough. Fife is typical. Last year it overspent by pound;500,000, contributing to a midsummer education budget crisis. It was a demand-led service which they could do little about, officials explained.
Jim MacGregor, senior official responsible for SEN, points out: "You are working to a cash limit and that brings you into conflict with legislation which requires you to meet identified needs. You are looking two ways at once."
The authority currently spends some pound;4 million on more than 600 pupils, plus extra on youngsters in mainstream who have auxiliary help. "We have received some money from the Scottish Executive for integration but when you relate it to what is needed for buildings and support staff, it does not take you too far," Mr MacGregor says.
In Borders, John Christie, director of education, faces a similar picture. Two years ago, the SEN budget was pound;300,000 overspent , a sum built into this year's budget. Nevertheless, staffing costs continue to be pound;150,000 over budget while fees for residential schools are over by pound;200,000. In two years, the overall budget has gone up by more than pound;650,000.
Borders has no special schools of its own and uses others in neighbouring authorities or independent schools, where fees continue to rise. "You have to be pretty hard-hearted to turn down increases, which can be up to pound;20,000, when you are talking about individual pupils with complex needs," Mr Christie said.
In a rural area, transport costs to units in schools are high but it is the inclusion agenda that brings extra burdens. "To support including youngsters with special needs, we have to employ additional auxiliaries and teachers. The auxiliary budget has increased substantially this year," he said.
The expansion of nursery education has led to earlier identification of needs while new pressures stem from a greater understanding of particular difficulties. "There are growing numbers on the autistic spectrum and these are difficult to manage," Mr Christie said.
Mr MacGregor confirmed the trend in Fife. "There is a higher individualisation of support as assessment procedures improve all the time. You are identifying special neds that you did not before," he said.
As in Borders, managing more cases of autism brings extra calls, particularly for auxiliary help. Historically, such pupils have been educated in mainstream schools but there is an increasing demand for specialist provision, particularly at Struan House in Alloa. "It is snowed under," Mr MacGregor said.
Last year there were 177 children in the council's special schools: this year the figure is 185. Last session there were 374 in departments of special education: this year 383.
"There are also huge pressures on the buildings front. You have to bring them up to date and make the whole school accessible," Mr MacGregor said.
Meanwhile, staffing standards in special education are well behind what is needed in practice. "In some cases you are talking about one to one, or two staff to one pupil because of handling problems," Mr MacGregor said.
The long-standing tension and conflict of roles between health boards and education departments exacerbates the difficulties. "We are trying to get a protocol with the health board to meet needs. Sometimes they make recommendations and expect us to pay for them," he says.
Glasgow reflects the national position and is the largest SEN provider with a budget of pound;40 million, providing support for more than 2,000 pupils in its own special schools. Last year, the special needs budget was pound;1 million overspent and this year will probably be no better. Margaret Orr, senior education officer, said: "It is a needs-led budget. Glasgow recognises that our needs are above baseline, but despite that, tensions are there."
Like others, the city faces an increasing incidence of demands for special educational needs, fuelled by earlier and more effective diagnosis and assessment and higher levels of accountability. This comes against a background of sharply falling school rolls.
"It's the unpredictability on a daily basis," Ms Orr says. Authorities are duty-bound to meet SEN placing requests, perhaps in another authority or an independent school.
Transport, not surprisingly, is almost always overspent because of the growing and diverse needs of pupils who have to be ferried to school by taxis and coaches. Pupils with complex needs can sometimes require two escorts.
On top of that, Ms Orr says, mainstream schools need more resources to meet integration demands and new legislation, which, in practice, can mean more auxiliaries. "It's a highly individualised policy these days. There is an increasing demand in pre-five, particularly with the diagnosis of autism. All these children require highly individualised support packages. There is an escalation of need, combined with parent and professional expectation of a high quality service," she states.
It all adds up to overspends and pressures elsewhere in budgets, a position Glasgow knows well. Politics it may be but it is surely significant when the city proposes withdrawing from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and switching its pound;300,000 subscription fee to autistic children.
Council leaders are well aware where the pressures lie.
Leader, page 12