Youngsters with additional needs must not be left out of the educational attainment debate, writes Niall Kelly
Reducing the attainment gap in Scottish education is quite rightly at the top of the political agenda for the new Scottish Government. However, if we are to genuinely close the gap, there is one group of young people who seem largely to be missing from this debate, but who are crucial to its success – those with Additional Support Needs (ASN).
A child or young person may have ASN if they experience a barrier to learning for whatever reason and this includes those who, for example, are on the autism spectrum, have dyslexia, are visually impaired, have learning difficulties or are care experienced.
If we are indeed to close the attainment gap and achieve the First Minister’s aim of equal opportunity for all, it is this group of children who desperately need our care and support. As we know, these children also disproportionately come from lower income families and from areas of social and economic deprivation.
As the First Minister stated last month, the “defining mission of this Government…[is] education” and in the next few months Nicola Sturgeon will convene a major summit on school reform and raising attainment, bringing together all the key stakeholders in education to look at what can be done to help raise attainment and collectively drive forward change.
In a recent letter to John Swinney MSP, our coalition called on the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills to invest in tailored services and greater resources for children and young people with ASN. Working in partnership with the public sector and third and independent sectors will also be required to ensure the child or young person concerned gets the care and support appropriate to their need, regardless of who is delivering this.
Recent statistics indicate the challenge we face, with the number of pupils identified with ASN standing at 153,190 last year, more than one in five (22.5 per cent) of the pupil population. Yet, in the face of local authority cuts, this group is being adversely impacted, with the number of specialist support staff in Scottish schools dropping by nearly 10 per cent between 2010 and 2015 (from 19,332 to 17,408) – putting pressure on already overstretched teachers.
Under the policy of inclusion there is a presumption that pupils with ASN are taught in a mainstream environment, which only adds to this pressure. Teachers and schools need to be able to make a genuine assessment of the ability of the child to cope in mainstream education – with the necessary resources provided to support them and alternative provision offered should mainstream not be able to address their needs.
We know what the impact of delaying assessment and failing to address the requirements of those with ASN is. School leavers with ASN are more than twice as likely to be unemployed or workless (15.1 per cent) than those with no ASN (6.3 per cent) nine months after leaving school. They also have a four times higher exclusion rate than the rest of the pupil population and are less likely to go onto positive destinations.
However, it should be noted that we face a major challenge when it comes to even accurately identifying the numbers of those with ASN, as highlighted by major disparities between local authority figures for numbers of pupils impacted.
For example, there was a difference of 31.7 percentage points between the local authority with the highest number of primary pupils recorded as having ASN (Aberdeenshire) and the local authority with the lowest number of primary pupils identified as having ASN (North Lanarkshire). This scenario is echoed in secondary school, with a difference of 30 percentage points between the local authority with the highest number of pupils recorded as having ASN (Eilean Siar) and the local authority with the lowest (North Lanarkshire).
Even neighbouring local authorities show major disparities, with 26 per cent of primary school pupils in North Ayrshire being recorded with ASN, compared with a mere nine per cent in South Ayrshire.
It is therefore difficult to accurately target resources and investment when we have such major disparities and this, in our estimation, is leading to thousands of children and young people missing out on the care and support they need, a fact recognised by the previous Government.
Supporting children and young people with ASN is vital if we are to create an equal society and genuinely close the educational attainment gap once and for all. That means investing to create an educational environment where if a child has ASN it will not impact on their ability to thrive and succeed.
• Niall Kelly is Managing Director, Young Foundations, member Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) www.thescsc.org.uk