Special schools under threat

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Fears have emerged for the future of independent residential special schools, after a controversial decision to take children back into council-run schools in Aberdeen.

It has been claimed that, if other authorities follow Aberdeen's example, such schools could disappear across the country. A council document approved late last year, A Strategy for Transforming Services for Children and Young People, proposes discontinuing the referral of pupils with complex needs to out-of-authority schools.

The move has particularly profound implications for Camphill Rudolf Steiner Schools, in Aberdeen, where 31 of 88 pupils are referred by the city council.

Robin Jackson, an educational consultant for the school, believes it and others like it will suffer badly, and may even face closure.

Dr Jackson suggests that, if the situation in Aberdeen is mirrored elsewhere, "the independent residential special school sector may face extinction in the not-too-distant future - and, once gone, it will be virtually impossible to reinstate". He also said there were widespread concerns among parents and staff that pupils more suited to residential schools would struggle if moved to city council daytime-only schools.

The TESS understands, meanwhile, that some local authorities are using case law to save money by removing children from placements at schools in other council areas, after a Court of Session ruling in November stated that a mother, whose son had special needs, did not have the right to request a placement to an authority outwith her own.

Senior figures at Aberdeen City Council stress that the process of diverting children to authority schools will be gradual, taking between five and 10 years, and that even afterwards a small number will still be referred outwith the city.

They told The TESS it would be "misleading" to suggest schools could close as a result of the decision.

The council made its decision amid mounting pressure on budgets - residential places in non-authority residential schools cost about pound;9.5 million a year. But officials stress that another big factor is the desire to provide education for children closer to home.

Yvonne Stevenson-Robb, whose 12-year-old son Rohan has Down's syndrome and has been at Camphill Rudolf Steiner Schools since May 2006, said: "Rohan's got a life - he's in a basketball team, and he's got people phoning for him, which he never had before. The thought of the school not existing is horrendous. It's not just a nice, worthy school - it's the best you can get."

HMIE rated the school highly in a report last September, finding that, on its scale of 16 quality indicators, Camphill merited three "excellents", 12 "very goods" and one "good".

Dr Jackson also argues that the council decision shows the dangers of local-authority education departments being subsumed into larger departments.

Aberdeen City Council has undergone the most radical restructuring of any Scottish authority, doing away with traditional departments and replacing them with three "neighbourhood divisions".

But, following the restructuring, HMIE last year described leadership and direction of education services in the city council as "weak".

"The problem for Aberdeen is that there is no shortage of strategists, but an absence of leaders - the education department having been absorbed into a mega-department," Dr Jackson said.

Next week: Robin Jackson on the "warehousing" of special needs pupils.

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