A number of specialist schools for children with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties (SEBD) are still offering too narrow a range of subjects, despite criticisms of curricular weaknesses in a national report two years ago.
Morag Gunion, lead HMIE inspector for inclusion and additional support needs, told a seminar in Edinburgh last week that a number of schools had failed to act on the report on standards and quality in special schools.
Published in 2003, the report covered 1998-2002 and showed that 50 per cent of all special schools in Scotland had weaknesses in the curriculum. This had been of particular importance in the area of SEBD, where major weaknesses were found in 20 per cent of schools inspected.
Inspectors found that the curriculum was focused on too narrow a range of subjects at the expense of the wider and more balanced curricular experience available to young people in mainstream schools, Ms Gunion said.
Pointing out that the report covered the four-year period up to 2002, she said: "I would like to assure you that the problem still exists in part. From the small sample we inspected this current year - five local authority day provision facilities for SEBD needs - we evaluated the curriculum experience as being good in only one, fair in three and unsatisfactory in one."
She added: "Often what happens is that a broad range of experiences are put in but they don't match up and mean anything - they don't take young people anywhere. There are no opportunities given within the national qualifications framework for certification."
Ms Gunion, one of 14 speakers who gave short presentations at the seminar at Moray House School of Education in Edinburgh on Friday, also underlined the need for local authorities to improve strategic planning.
Evidence from inspections of education departments showed that among Scotland's 32 councils, 14 had been given a recommendation to improve provision in some form of support for learning and additional support needs. Some of these recommendations were particularly geared to organising and developing strategically across the authority.
"Authorities need to take a longer view and make sure new provision developed is not just ad hoc provision," Ms Gunion said.
She also highlightedthe need to "keep the gate open". Inspectors had found that, particularly in secondary schools, there was often no planned return route.
The seminar, which focused on the place of special provision for SEBD in a policy climate of inclusion, heard of tensions between those who thought the balance should be one way or another. One workshop participant from the SEBD sector commented: "We are seen as a barrier to inclusion - we need to fight our corner."
Jane Arrowsmith, headteacher at Oakbank School in Aberdeen and chair of the Association of Residential Schools in Scotland, said one of the biggest challenges was the "acceptance of our sector as a quality experience for young people with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties".
Special provision did not mean exclusion, while inclusion did not always mean a mainstream education. "Mainstream schools do a fabulous job, yes, but they can't meet all of the needs all of the time. Inclusion surely means the opportunity for every learner to achieve their potential."
Mike Gibson, head of the additional support needs division of the Scottish Executive Education Department, quoted from a leaflet for the seminar which stated there was often an expressed view that pupils with challenging behaviour were not included in mainstream. "We all know that that's a myth," Mr Gibson said.
Statistics showed that the percentage of the school population in special schools was fairly static - 1.05 per cent in 1996, 1.05 per cent in 2003 and 1.02 per cent in 2004.
Issues highlighted during the all-day seminar included the need for more co-operation between mainstream and SEBD schools, a more effective partnership among professionals, joint delivery of services, a greater emphasis on prevention and a requirement to ensure that existing approaches to intervention and restorative practices are the right solution.
It was also suggested that quality indicators for specialist schools needed to be reviewed.