'We'll find the money'
Henry McLeish has thrown his personal weight behind an improved deal for school leavers with special needs.
These young people are widely seen as falling through all the safety nets. In response to proposals from the Beattie committee on post-16 education and training for these school leavers, the Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister promised an action plan by January and money to back it up. Asked by the TESS where the cash would come from, he said firmly: "We'll find it."
Robert Beattie, the committee chairman, said its recommendations were "practical, pragmatic and affordable".
The report suggests a national group led by a minister and reinforced by 17 area networks, in line with the local boundaries of the careers service companies. Mr McLeish said the report would be "a tool for action. It will not sit on a shelf." A series of dissemination seminars would be held over the next few months.
The 15-strong committee, set up by the previous Labour administration last April, came to "an almost unanimous view that the current funding regime in both (further education and training) does not adequately recognise the diverse and complex needs of young people who have additional support needs."
"Additional support needs" is the committee's preferred term for special educational needs. Its report suggests the introduction of a "national support fund" to provide specialist equipment or personal help, such as a sign language interpreter. The fund could also support a "coach" for disaffected young people.
Ironically, many of the recommendations will land on Mr Beattie's desk in his capacity as chairman of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, to which he was appointed after he became chairman of the special needs committee. This will include the suggestion that the funding of FE colleges, currently under review by the SFEFC, should be tailored to students who need additional support.
The committee's far-reaching recommendations call for a comprehensive guidance, assessment and support system to make it easier for leavers with special needs to find a job, an education or a training place.
This will require new money, as will proposals for key workers and mentors. Staff development will be another cost: a survey of FE colleges shows less than half of academic staff receive any awareness training in special needs.
The report's title, Implementing Inclusiveness, Realising Potential, is intended to summarise the committee's message. The "single, unifying principle" is inclusiveness, by which they mean access to fair and accurate assessment, well-informed guidance, and learning and support matched to needs.
In his speech at the launch of the report in Drumchapel last Friday, Mr Beattie made it clear that inclusiveness was not the same as integration. "We believe that sometimes integration is appropriate but sometimes it is not. It should be determined by what is best for the young person. Simply saying 'we are all the same' will deny some young people the extra support they need."
The committee found that too many vulnerable youngsters end up in dead-end jobs after leaving school. They may also endlessly repeat courses and "scheme hop" with no progression in their learning or careers.
The report says its target group is diverse, encompassing physical, learning, mental and behavioural difficulties. Although the focus was on 16-24 year olds, the report warns that problems are likely to manifest themselves as early as 14.