Insight: Scottish classrooms are in chaos

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Inclusiveness” is one of those open-ended political catchwords, sprinkled through annual reports and policies like confetti. Although it sounds rather abstract, nebulous even, it is promoted as something we should all be aiming for in order to create a more humane and caring society for those who might otherwise end up isolated and marginalised, losing out on vital life chances.

It also has the advantage of never having to be pinned down and financially costed.

The goal of integrating children with special needs into mainstream education has left some teachers at the end of their tether. Picture: Getty

The goal of integrating children with special needs into mainstream education has left some teachers at the end of their tether. Picture: Getty

Now a growing number of Scotland’s teachers are speaking out, claiming that such “political correctness” is being used as a stick to beat them.

As austerity bites, one of the areas the teaching profession is becoming increasingly concerned about is the integration of youngsters with additional support needs (ASN) into mainstream classrooms in primary and secondary schools, and the knock-on problems created.

These are pupils with a range of difficulties ranging from dyslexia, autism, ADHD and disability to those with behavioural and emotional problems and challenging family circumstances.

Worried teachers say they are “beyond breaking point” trying to cope with the often complex and challenging requirements of such pupils which can impact adversely on the education of the rest of the class.

The number of pupils in Scotland identified as having ASN has rocketed to its highest ever level, while the number of specialist support teachers has dropped.

Scottish Government statistics released in December 2017 show 183,491 pupils were identified as having ASN – 26.6 per cent of the school population. This is also an increase of over 55 per cent since 2012.

But the latest figures for additional support for learning teachers has fallen from 3,384 to 2,990 – 12 per cent – between 2012 and 2016.

The overall number of school support staff, embracing teachers, ASN auxiliaries and behaviour support staff, has dropped by 3 per cent over the same timescale, from 16,377 to 15,880.

The figures also show the exclusion rate per 1,000 for pupils with ASN, is more than four times higher than those who have no ASN, with deprivation being a major factor in exclusions.

Alison*, who has 15 years’ experience as a city centre primary teacher, says she would like to see Education Secretary John Swinney spend a week as a pupil support assistant in a school.

Here’s her testimony: “In the last two weeks I have been sworn at, called a “f***ing hoor”, kicked at and threatened with scissors.

“Is this acceptable? No. Staff have a right to be safe in school and even more importantly so do our youngsters.

“I can see the impact of this daily onslaught of aggression, violence and mental health issues is having. This impact is increasing staff mental health problems, and causing huge anxiety to other children, who have the right to a safe environment where the focus should be on learning and personal development.

“We are in the position where we have children with complex needs who are in classrooms with teachers who are wholly unprepared and lacking the skills to deal with them.

“The whole inclusion debate is not about children, it’s about money.”

Alison is at pains to stress her views are not politically motivated.

“I’ve voted SNP all my life, so what I’m saying is not a political thing. It pains me politically because I don’t like to see my party making such a monumental mess of it; giving the Tories an own goal. But I just can’t keep silent any longer.

“Children are in the system where there is no capacity, either in staff or resources, to deal with their needs. How is this getting it right? Our social work partners are unable to attend meetings as they as so short-staffed. Referrals take up to a year to process, and engagement with parents can be difficult. We sometimes feel like parents and social workers too.

“I would laugh, if it weren’t so sad and infuriating, when I read the STEM agenda, Closing The Gap, Building The Ambition and Governance Review among many others.

“Give our children and teachers mental wellbeing at the heart of what we do and we will close the gap and meet the needs of those who deserve better… the next generation.”

All of the teachers who spoke to Scotland on Sunday said they did not intend to “demonise” the children needing extra support.

“It’s very much the hard-core minority who cause the difficulties,” said Stephen*, who has taught in a rural secondary school for six years.

“It doesn’t really matter what the root cause is – autism, ADHD, bad behaviour or just basic lack of respect – once the class is disrupted, every child in the class is then being educationally excluded.

“The needs of the majority must come before the rights of the minority.”

Jim*, a newly qualified secondary teacher in a small town, says he is “stressed out” by the whole business of “inclusion” and the resultant “blame game” which can target teachers.

“I’m all for inclusion but it has to be backed up. At the moment, pupil support assistants are the only weapon in the arsenal. This is totally inadequate. If we don’t sort out the inclusion agenda we’ll never close the attainment gap.

“Our profession is full of leaders and managers who, for one reason or another, have created a blame culture for the ones at the forefront of service delivery.

“We spend so much of our time being positive and nurturing I think some of us find it easier to blame others and I have witnessed this bullying behaviour at first hand.

“I am a committed and enthusiastic teacher who loves my job. However, I cannot see me being able to continue under these current political and social pressures.

“I took a child to accident and emergency recently and I laughed to read the zero tolerance poster for aggression and violence. I experience that most days and I work in a ‘good’ school. What must my colleagues who work in challenging areas face?”

Teachers’ unions naturally echo their members’ concerns, though the emphasis on whether lack of resources is chiefly to blame, or the whole concept of inclusivity, shifts.

Andrea Bradley, assistant secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland, said the union supported the “Presumption to Mainstream” that keeps all pupils in the same classroom, but that it was floundering due to under-investment.

“While the desire and ambition to deliver inclusive education is a laudable one, the level of resources to fund it is being cut and cut and cut. Year upon year, with austerity budgeting we’re seeing a diminution in funding for special needs teaching,” says Bradley.

“We’re not looking to overturn the policy on inclusion but it is crying out for adequate funding. This means that teachers are left demoralised as professionals are not able to meet the complex needs of some children.

“Teachers may be responsible for a class with quite diverse abilities, with around eight or nine pupils who have quite complex additional needs. That for them is very demoralising and they feel their expertise is being thinly stretched.”

Bradley added that large class sizes were a particular problem for pupils with emotional and behavioural problems.

“These children struggle with very large classes, especially when in relatively small classroom spaces. Class size is definitely one of the contributory factors,” she said.

But Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said the ethos of inclusion itself needed to be re-examined, suggesting that it was a convenient subterfuge for penny-pinching.

“Inclusive education is a way of saving money. It covers a multitude of sins and can be unfair on pupils, staff and parents.

“The promise is made to parents that ‘you’ll get the support you need’ but it doesn’t always materialise.

“The support teacher, usually a trained specialist meant to be for the individual pupil, can get shifted to teach elsewhere in the school. This means the youngster is left without support and might start kicking off. Or they might just sit quietly at the back of the class and the lesson is wasted on them.

“The Scottish Government can talk a good game but it needs to up its investment in education and special needs to have any credibility.”

Of course, part of the stress teachers feel working under what they see as intolerable conditions is the feeling that they have failed their charges, whether they are naturally gifted or challenged by behavioural or environmental problems. It can seem as though, through no fault of their own, they have taken part in a life lottery determining whether or not they will receive a decent education.

The Scottish Government has designated 2018 the Year of Young People – a global first.

Its intention is to provide a platform to showcase the personalities, talents and achievements of Scotland’s young people.

However, while all children have personalities, how can the talent and achievements of all of Scotland’s children and teenagers be highlighted if their education never gets off the starting blocks?

One teacher spoke of his anguish at seeing “some poor wee soul with their cortisol levels going up, stressed to the max, seeing this disruption going on all day, or coming to school frightened not knowing when something was going to erupt”.

A spokeswoman from the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition warned of the consequences of the present situation: “The cost to society in the long term if investment is not increased will far outweigh any potential savings made today, and will hinder any efforts to close the educational attainment gap.”

Of course, it could be argued that the phrase “educational attainment gap” – rather than a desire to simply improve attainment – betrays a special focus on the benefits of inclusive education to children with learning disabilities, behavioural problems, or the socially disadvantaged.

One advocate for their needs, Jan Savage, ENABLE Scotland’s executive director of external affairs and strategic development, said the majority of children needing extra support were unhappy at the level of help provided.

“Last year, our award-winning #IncludED in the Main?! campaign demonstrated inclusive education is far from a reality in Scotland – with 52 per cent of pupils who have a learning disability telling us they do not feel they are getting the right support at school, and 78 per cent of education staff saying there is not enough additional support for learning staff in their schools.

“The Scottish Government has responded by publishing new Guidance on the Presumption of Mainstreaming, currently out for consultation.

“Now, 17 years on from the inception of the legal presumption to mainstream, we finally have guidance going beyond the right to be present, to the right to be genuinely included.

“However, guidance is only the first significant step on a new journey towards inclusion. Further work will be required to ensure appropriate resources and training are delivered to take the vision of the guidance into the life of the classroom,” said Savage.

Meanwhile, there are those who feel that, in the interests of teaching staff and pupils as a whole, the system of Presumption of Mainstreaming may need to be re-examined altogether.

Liz Smith, Scottish Conservative shadow education secretary, said: “There is a major issue with ASN resources in schools across Scotland.

“The SNP government hasn’t dedicated anything like enough funding to it, and that has led to difficulties for staff and pupils.

“Having over-stretched teachers teach ASN pupils and other children at the same time is in no-one’s interests, and it’s clear from this a better system should be devised.”

So, what’s to be done? What practical steps can be taken right now to make a difference?

Well, the consensus from our teachers in the front line may alarm the government and supporters of the interests of children with special needs, not to mention their parents.

The teachers who contacted us – and of course there will be those who disagree with them – said that from this week onwards, where there was inadequate pupil support and lessons were suffering, schools should use a classroom as a unit, perhaps shared with other schools, where those with extra needs could be taught for part of the academic day or week.

They said pupils would not stay permanently in such units, but rather, they might be able to return for lessons such as music or art. Or, if a youngster’s “bad time” was in the afternoon, they could be in the mainstream class in the mornings, if support was there.

They also advocated compulsory parenting classes – for parents of all backgrounds – to learn what was expected from them.

But all said vastly increased Scottish Government funding was the only permanent answer.

This was the only way they could see that all pupils – those with special needs or not – could receive the education to which they were entitled.

When confronted with the views of our teachers, a Scottish Government spokeswoman responded: “We want all children and young people to receive the support they need to reach their full potential. Children and young people should learn in the environment which best suits their needs, whether that is in a mainstream or special school setting. There is a range of provision in place in Scotland to meet the wide range of children and young people’s needs.”

The spokeswoman reaffirmed that all teachers had a responsibility to help their pupils with special needs.

“Now that 95 per cent of children with additional support needs are educated in mainstream schools, all teachers provide support to pupils with additional support needs not just ‘support for learning’ teachers. To single out support for learning teachers is inaccurate.

“The Scottish Government is currently consulting on guidance on the implementation of the presumption to mainstream education.

“This guidance will be finalised taking account of the research which we are currently undertaking into the experiences of pupils, families and those who provide support in schools.”

It seems unlikely such an approach will satisfy the teachers we spoke to.

The names of the teachers who spoke to us have been changed at their request