Scotland's acclaimed national centres for children with additional support needs are facing a struggle for survival, as they experience "dramatic" reductions in their rolls.
The TESS can reveal that the seven specialist schools are suffering from a double whammy: the trend towards educating more disabled children in mainstream schools and the reluctance of cash-strapped councils to take up the schools' expensive places.
The Craighalbert Centre, which supports children with motor impairments, has only filled a quarter of places; Scotland's national school for the deaf, Donaldson's, is only half-full; Corseford and Stanmore House schools, which cater for children with very complex needs, have seen their rolls halved in five years; and the Royal Blind School has 79 pupils but could take 120.
Pat Salter, director of the Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld, accused local authorities of becoming "aggressive" in their refusal to fund places. "The needs of the child are not their prime focus," he said.
However, according to John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, grant-aided schools had to demonstrate clear educational benefit and value for money.
He commented: "If local authorities think they can do better and be more effective locally, they will make that choice."
The grant-aided schools receive half their funding from the Scottish Government - pound;10.7 million annually - and the other half from local authorities. Places, although subsidised, are costly: Donaldson's annual fee for a day pupil is pound;25,801.
Donaldson's principal, Janice MacNeill, said the school, which is now based in Linlithgow, had become a "last resort", with councils referring pupils after they had become disillusioned with education. "I would like to have children in earlier to look at how we can develop communication and give them the toolkit they need to move into mainstream," she added.
Julie Shylan, principal of the Royal Blind School in Edinburgh, called for local authority referrals to be replaced with a system that would see the experts negotiate the best placement for a child, rather than the current "adversarial" process.
Councils fought tooth and nail to resist placing children in grant-aided schools, said Cathy Flynn, liaison officer with parent advocacy group Independent Special Education Advice (ISEA) Scotland.
She continued: "I've seldom come across a local authority that will grant a request for a grant-aided school or independent special school without a huge fight, because the longer they fight it the longer they don't have to pay."
Despite heavy local authority investment in special education over the past five years, there was still a need for schools specialising in very complex needs, according to Mark Bevan, head of education at Capability Scotland, which runs Corseford and Stanmore House.
The Scottish Government is currently conducting a review of nationally- funded provision for children with complex needs, which is due to report in 18 months.
Emma Seith email@example.com