THE number of children in Scottish schools who need extra help in the classroom due to conditions such as autism, ADHD and learning difficulties has shown a dramatic fourfold increase in the past ten years, figures reveal.
Campaigners have called for an investigation after statistics showed the number of children needing extra support in their studies rose from fewer than 29,000 in 2002 to 118,034 last year.
Officials said the huge increase was due to greater awareness of the conditions and changes to the way they collected the figures.
But charities said these factors alone could not explain the rise in children listed with “additional support needs”, and labelled it a “calamity in child health”.
The increase has also highlighted the need for better support and resources for teachers working with children with additional needs.
The figures were revealed in response to a parliamentary question submitted by Conservative MSP Murdo Fraser.
They showed that between 2002 and 2008 the number of pupils recorded with an additional support need rose by about 2,000 a year, from 28,732 to 38,716.
In 2010, officials extended the definition of children with additional needs to include those without formal plans in place to support them, leading to a large increase in the numbers from 44,177 in 2009 to 98,523 in 2011 and 118,034 in 2012.
In his response to Mr Fraser, SNP MSP Dr Alasdair Allan said: “While factors for the increase include growing public and professional awareness, improved diagnosis and wider diagnostic criteria, it is believed better recording in schools is the primary reason for an increase in the prevalence of pupils who have additional support needs.”
But Bill Welsh, honorary president of the Edinburgh-based Autism Treatment Trust, said he did not accept that these factors alone were behind the rising numbers of children needing extra help at school.
“The figures that have been uncovered reveal an unprecedented calamity in child health,” he said.
“We have more children with mild to severe neurological problems than ever in our history, and it may be a significant factor that no plausible explanation is being offered by those responsible for public health matters.
“Autism, once rare, is now more common than all other serious childhood conditions combined. One schoolchild in 77 in Scotland has an autism diagnosis.
“The number of children with speech and language disorder has increased dramatically; likewise, kids with emotional and behavioural difficulties.”
Mr Welsh added: “Our politicians must grasp the nettle and immediately set up a truly independent inquiry to examine all the potential causes of this episode and to report urgently.
“Teachers and other professionals in education are under severe pressure as a result of the dramatic increase in children with additional support needs.”
Jackie Brock, chief executive of charity Children in Scotland, said: “There is certainly a clear trend emerging that more children going through our schools need additional support and help. This can be down to a number of complex factors and, in order to provide the best support available, it would be helpful to better understand where these children are coming from and if there are any other reasons for the increase.”
Mr Fraser, a parliamentary adviser to the Autism Treatment Trust, said: “It is undoubtedly the case that there has been much better record-keeping than there was even ten years ago. But it is still a very dramatic increase – a more than fourfold increase since 2002 in terms of pupils with additional support needs.
“My concern would be: is there an underlying issue here that we should be taking more seriously, rather than simply dismissing it as a question of better recording of information?”
Lorraine Stobie, headteacher at Southcraig Campus special school in South Ayrshire, said another possible reason for rising numbers was children with disabilities were living longer.
Other campaigners said the statistics highlighted the importance of making sure children with extra needs got the help they needed at school.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The recording of pupils having additional support needs was expanded in 2010 to include anyone receiving additional support at school, regardless of whether it was under a formal plan, which is how it was previously defined.
“This change, alongside better public and professional awareness, has led to an increase in the number of pupils classed as receiving additional support, ensuring that their needs can be better met at school.”