COUNCILS may have to consult new regional committees before closing or opening special schools or changing special needs education, under ministerial plans to extend regional planning.
The Government has already set up five pilot projects - involving authorities in London, eastern England, Merseyside, the South-west and West Midlands - to look at ways of improving the co-ordination of special needs education in their areas. The pilots are looking mainly at services for "low incidence" special needs - such as impaired hearing or sight.
But additional regional projects, due to begin this autumn, will be able to look at the full range of special needs education in their areas. It is expected that all of England will have regional steering groups in place by next spring.
The regional pilot projects will be evaluated later this year - when the DFEE will consider whether local authorities should have to consult the steering groups over changes to special needs provision.
Trevor Cook, head of special educational needs at Merton, London, and chairman of the capital's regional special needs pilot project, told a conference of headteachers and governors that this would mean planning on a regional, rather than a local authority, basis.
"Education authorities will continue to manage their special schools, but the regional projects will be issuing advice and guidance to ministers and authorities on what is needed," he said.
"If a school is closing, opening, or changing (its character), planning committees will all need to make reference to the work of the regional planning group."
He added: "The regional project has not limited itself to special schools. It's looking at provision for children with special needs in the region. Within that, authorities can have their own identity but what we don't want to have is duplication or inefficiency.
"The regional planning projects will, over time, start to determine provision. So if there is a request to open a special school in an authority when it is already meeting needs, the regional group will say 'we don't think that's right'."