Pupils with language disorders could be short-changed because teachers are not collaborating effectively with therapists, sometimes even excluding speech and language specialists from their classrooms.
This is a major conclusion of an inspectors' report published last week following a four-year investigation of 22 schools and units for young people with speech and language impairments, including autism - 40 per cent of the total provision in Scotland.
The report strongly recommends a "written service contract" specifying what is expected of the therapist and of the school. An accompanying statement from Raymond Robertson, the Scottish education minister, endorses the conclusion that "the quality of this partnership needed to be improved".
The inspectors urge joint training sessions for teachers and therapists and joint goal-setting. They found parental satisfaction an excellent guide to how well teachers and therapists were collaborating because, when they were, parents "received similar information from each and saw them working together in the classroom".
The report says that links with parents are generally good. But the scattered nature of schools and units poses problems for parents in travelling to meet staff, and some parents complained that their children were not given work to do at home. Parents could also find multi-disciplinary case conferences "intimidating" and felt that professionals should do more to allow them to participate as equal partners. The inspectors endorse these grievances and urge schools to address them.
They also stress the need for a range of support for pupils with speech and language problems, from integrated provision, through units in mainstream schools, to separate schools. Teachers and parents complained of pupils being transferred to special schools because of a lack of specialist support in secondary schools. The report calls for more units after they leave the primary stage.
But it also notes that "what this inspection has indicated is that what is important is not where the pupils are educated but how they are educated".
A key to that effectiveness is an "individualised educational programme", without which "there could be no assurance that intervention strategies would address purposefully the pupil's specific language and communication difficulties."
The inspectors say that the majority of these classroom plans are satisfactory but many could be improved.
They also report considerable variations across local authorities and even within schools and units in keeping records of needs for pupils, which set out their strengths as well as the steps intended to tackle weaknesses. Only 30 per cent of pupils in pre-school or primary units were recorded; all the pupils in one unit had records opened while the proportions in the others differed markedly.
The report urges education authorities to review their policies on recording and reminds them forcefully that "all children and pupils whose speech, language or communication disorders result in pronounced, specific or complex special educational needs which require continuing review should be recorded".
In particular, the authorities are told to ensure they keep parents informed and involved in planning their children's future educational placements. A number of parents complained that they had not been told about records of needs and that these could be opened for children from the age of two.
There are an estimated 10,500 Scottish children, from pre-school to secondary, with speech and language disorders. A 1993 Scottish Office questionnaire identified 15,817 people under the age of 20 as being in need of direct speech and language therapy.
The Scottish Office Education and Industry Department set up a research project last year to find out the extent of autism among pupils and how it could be tackled.
The contract, awarded to the school of education at Birmingham University, runs to the end of this month.