Schools Scotland: Eight key findings as thousands of additional support needs (ASN) children 'let down'

Education committee inquiry was inundated with evidence from concerned parents and staff

A recent explosion in the number of children with additional support needs (ASN) has piled pressure on Scottish school staff, pupils and their families.

That has been clear from the more than 600 responses which flooded Holyrood’s education when it embarked on a recent inquiry into additional support for learning (ASL).

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Committee convener Sue Webber told The Scotsman: “It was really disheartening when we learned some of the personal challenges faced by families and young people. There has been an exponential growth in the number of young people needing support and that doesn’t match the budget - the budget provision is completely at odds with where the needs are now.”

She added: “It does really shine a light on the fact we’re letting down thousands and thousands of young people.”

It comes as the number of pupils with ASN in Scotland has soared from 36,544 in 2007 to 259,036 last year. Now, after a series of hearings, the MSPs on the committee have published their findings in a 94-page report. The Scotsman has summarised the key conclusions and recommendations.

Presumption of mainstreaming has not been properly implemented

In Scotland, most children, including the majority of those with ASN, are educated in mainstream schools, as part of efforts to create an “inclusive, empathetic and more just society”.

Most witnesses told the committee there was widespread support for the intention behind the “presumption of mainstreaming”, but that schools did not have sufficient resources to implement it properly.

The report warned of staff “feeling overwhelmed and burnt out”, while parents and carers were often left “fighting” for the right resources. It said: “The committee was alarmed to hear there was strong evidence to suggest that the majority of ASN pupils are not having their needs met.”

“The committee agrees with the policy intention behind the 2000 Act's presumption of mainstreaming. However, the gap between the policy intention and how this has been implemented in practice is intolerable.”

There is confusion over the need for an ASN diagnosis

It was claimed in evidence that some education authorities wait for formal diagnoses before putting support in place for pupils, while many parents also wrongly believe a diagnosis is required.

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One parent said: “Every support my child has, has been due to a fight to get the school to do anything. They have never offered support or made a suggestion of any support they could do. It is a constant battle, every day.”

The committee said it was “saddened” by the evidence and urged the Scottish Government to provide clarity in the guidelines. It also called for research into the impact of “masking”, where neurodivergent children put huge effort into trying to be who they think they are supposed be while at school.

Councils must review and address lack of specialist provision

The Scotsman recently reported that demand for special schools has quadrupled in Glasgow in the past few years, but some authorities have no special schools at all, with the overall number in Scotland dropping from 190 in 2006 to 107 last year, despite the rocketing number of ASN pupils.

One parent told the committee: “In our area, there is no special school, therefore no choice for parents. My daughter absolutely meets the criteria for a special school and we feel let down completely that this isn’t even an option for us.”

The MSPs urged local authorities to “assess what specialist provision is currently in place and to address any gaps in provision as a matter of urgency”, and called on the Government to review the way placing requests for special schools work. The report also highlighted “unacceptable” delays for families attempting to access specialist provision within mainstream schools.

Clearer guidance is needed on the design of school buildings

During the inquiry, education secretary Jenny Gilruth hit the headlines when she suggested many schools are too big. Other witnesses raised concerns about the layout of schools, with open-plan buildings not always being suitable for neurodivergent pupils.

The committee recommended the Government and its agencies “reassess the support and advice provided to local authorities” on school design.

Teachers and support staff need more time for ASN training

Several witnesses suggested that teacher training courses should include a greater focus on supporting pupils with ASN.

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The committee found continuous professional learning and development training for teachers and pupil support workers was “extremely important” and that time should be made available for all staff to undertake ASN-related training on an ongoing basis.

A new approach is needed to funding ASL provision in Scotland

The MSPs heard widespread concerns about resourcing amid a rise in ASN pupils. The committee called for a more “joined up and inclusive” approach between different bodies, including education authorities, NHS, the Government and its agencies.

Timetables and curriculum should be more flexible

The committee was told the move to remote and online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic had been beneficial for some ASN pupils.

Peter Bain, president of School Leaders Scotland, said: “We need to recognise that every individual in our school system has individual needs. We must change our insistence on mainstream schooling being from nine till half three.”

All families should have access to a tribunal

There has been a dramatic rise in the number of placing request applications being taken to a tribunal since the pandemic.

The MSPs heard that having a co-ordinated support plan (CSP) was the only legal way to access the tribunal services or through equalities legislation.

However, of the 259,036 children with ASN last year, just 1,318 had a CSP.

The committee noted this was an “extremely small” number. It said: “The committee considers that all children and young people should have access to remedies and that access to the tribunal should be open to everyone.”

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What did the Scottish Government say?

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is clear that children and young people should learn in an environment which best suits their needs, whether that is in a mainstream or special school setting.

“Specialist staff and pupil support staff play a vital role in supporting pupils with additional support needs, which is why spending on additional support for learning reached a record high of £926 million last year.

“The total number of support staff in Scotland rose to 17,330 and there were also 2,898 teachers across all sectors with additional support needs as their main subject in 2023, an increase on recent years.

“Ministers will consider the report in full, including the recommendations of the committee, and provide a formal response in due course.”



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