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Sophie Pilgrim, Kindred – In these times of austerity, how will we fund the rising cost of education for children with Additional Support Needs?

Sophie Pilgrim, Director of Kindred, writes for Friends of the Scotsman. On behalf of the SCSC she asks how, in these times of austerity, will we fund the rising cost of education for children with Additional Support Needs?

If you have a child in a mainstream school, then you will see that inclusion is at work. I visited a mainstream primary school recently and was amazed to see a child who was severely autistic coping well in an open plan classroom of more than 60 Primary One children thanks to the help of a Pupil Support Assistant.

We have battled our way through seven years of economic downturn and almost certainly, post-Brexit, there is more to come. There is no doubt that local authorities are struggling and over-stretched and looking for opportunities to cut budgets. In this climate, there is good reason for concern about the education of children with additional needs who cost more than their peers to educate.

You will probably have noticed that more and more children are being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. There has been a twelvefold rise in the rate of diagnosis since the seventies due to better recognition of the condition. With more children diagnosed with conditions affecting their learning, schools need to respond with targeted support and there have been huge advances in this. Strategies such as whole school training in autism awareness, visual timetables and less cluttered environments can all benefit the learning of all children.

We cannot turn the clock back on more knowledgeable attitudes to children with disabilities in schools, but can we continue to afford the cost of extra support? Due to medical advances children with complex needs are thankfully surviving longer. However, this is placing greater demand on our specialist school places. Unless the capacity of special schools is increased, then mainstream schools must in turn manage with a higher proportion of children with challenging behaviour who would previously have found places in special schools.

While it may be less costly to educate children with additional needs in mainstream, there are a very small proportion of children who cannot be suitably educated within a mainstream environment. Some children with ‘sensory issues’ find the mainstream environment overwhelming. Children with complex needs may need a high level of care which cannot practically be met within a busy mainstream classroom and a very small number of children have challenging behaviour which would disrupt the learning of other children, or even put them at risk. This was brought home to me when I visited a psychiatric facility in Northumbria and staff explained how some children go through times when they cannot tolerate the presence of other children and have to be educated entirely alone. There is no doubt that some children require residential schooling if their behaviour is not manageable at home so we will continue to need special schools despite the long term costs to children in being educated far from home and community.

In 1978, almost forty years ago, a report was published which has had a seismic impact on the education of children with additional needs in the UK.  This was the ‘Warnock Report’, written by a committee enquiring into Special Educational Needs and Chaired by Dame Mary Warnock. The report made over 200 recommendations, and while many are yet to be implemented in full, the vision remains intact. The Scottish Children’s Services Coalition campaigns today for some of the key issues set out in Warnock all those years ago: effective and early assessment; an increased number of Educational Psychologists; accurate recording of the numbers of children requiring support; specialist support to be provided within mainstream schools.

Dame Warnock herself has come to criticise her own recommendations for being overly bureaucratic. An unintended consequence in England and Wales has been a huge number of parents taking their local authorities to tribunal over provision for their children. In Scotland, we have been able to watch and learn. Our tribunal system was set up in the last ten years and includes an emphasis on mediation which means that only a handful of cases actually reach a hearing. Most cases resolve because parents and local authorities come to a reasonable compromise.

So in Scotland we have great advances in mainstream schools to provide individualised support to children with disabilities and we have been able to absorb more and more children into mainstream. But we also have a rising number of children requiring special school provision and we lack sufficient provision for children with extreme and challenging behaviour.

What will happen to the severely autistic child coping in a class of 60 Primary One children when she reaches secondary school? It is hard to avoid the conclusion that we need more special school provision in Scotland for the sake of all our children.

Sophie Pilgrim

Director of Kindred Scotland, member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition

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About the Author

The SCSC is a collection of leading independent and third sector service providers. Members deliver specialist care and education services for children and young people with complex needs and care experience.