THE TORY Party in Scotland have emerged as champions of public subsidies for nationally funded schools. The unlikely figure of Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, the former Scottish Secretary, is giving his emphatic backing.
Brian Monteith, the party's education spokesman, has condemned the Scottish Executive's proposal to remove its pound;7 million support from the seven grant-aided special schools. The money would go to local authorities instead and the authorities could buy places if they wished to. Mr Montieth has lodged a motion for debate in Parliament.
The move follows the recommendations of the Riddell committee on pupils with severe disabilities. The report said that the majority of the schools, which include Donaldson's School for the Deaf in Edinburgh and the Craighalbert Centre in Cumbernauld, draw most of their 400 pupils from the local vicinity. This did not justify central government expenditure on them as "national centres."
Some of the heads doubt their chances of survival on local authority support. Mr Monteithargues that it could put these schools in jeopardy, and his motion calls for any changes to the funding regime to be delayed by at least a year.
Mr Monteith commented: "Schools such as Donaldson's School for the Deaf and the Royal Blind School are national centres of excellence, and should continue to be funded centrally in recognition of this. Switching the funds to local authorities brings no guarantee that these schools will continue. Indeed some might even have to become fully independent and charge higher fees to survive. So much for social inclusion."
Lord Forsyth's intervention came in an address to Conservative candidates at Callendar. He is particularly close to the issue. When he was education minister, his personal crusade to bring conductive education to Scotland led to the establishment of the Craighalbert school for children with cerebral palsy.
He claimed that officials in the Scottish Office had suggested axing the national grant for the special schools in the past and that he had always rejected the idea. The implication is that he believes ministers have now been captured by their officials.
The Educational Institute of Scotland agrees that "the specialist provision in these seven national institutions could be compromised by the proposed change in funding arrangements. The charging of full economic fees by the seven schools would probably lead to less placements by education authorities. Indeed, the change is perhaps intended to lead to this."
The EIS underlines the importance of the transitional period,. and suggests national arbitration for parents who want to send their children to one of the national schools but are blocked by their education authority.
The union says that the expertise of those who teach deaf and blind youngsters in the two specialist schools should not be dispersed, and the Government should cover the cost of staff development in Donaldson's and the Royal Blind School.
The education authorities, unsurprisingly, take a different line. Glasgow's response serves to underline the fears for the schools: "The authority may be able to consider investment in its own specialist provision to reduce the requirement to take up places in the independent sector."
When the Riddell report was published in September, the Education Minister announced another pound;12 million over two years to help integrate pupils with special needs into mainstream schools. Ministers see this as an essential plank in their social inclusion agenda.
But the EIS warns against giving "undue priority to a particular philosophy over the needs of individual children. Decisions about whether a particular child's needs should be met through separate provision, through integrated provision or through some combination of the two should be taken pragmatically in the case of each individual child, and should not be driven either by particular philosophies or by financial considerations."