Have you ever seen the film Sliding Doors? The concept is interesting, the idea that simple everyday choices or experiences can take your life one direction or another.
Being identified as having additional support needs (ASN) creates a scenario that, as with Sliding Doors, can play out in a number of ways. Let’s take Bill, our fictitious pupil, who has recently been diagnosed with ASN.
Bill has been identified as fitting into one of the 24 categories described as reasons for support within Scotland. This process of identification means that Bill, as with all ASN pupils, is entitled to specific support designed to ensure that all pupils in Scotland have the same opportunities to become successful learners under the Education Act (2004).
But this is where things can go all Sliding Doors on us – what if these supports are not available? If we identify pupils as having ASN, how can we expect them to have the same academic progress if the support they clearly need is not given?
If the Scottish Government identifies these pupils as being ‘unable, without the provision of additional support, to benefit from school education’ how can we expect anything other than challenges when we fail to provide what’s required?
Since changes in legislation in 2012 we have seen a significant rise in the number of pupils identified as having ASN needs. Between 2012 and 2017 the number of pupils needing additional support increased by 9 per cent, from 17.6 per cent of the school population to 26.6 per cent.
When you factor in population growth, this works out as an increase of 65,457 pupils who require additional support to have the same opportunities as their peers, bringing the total of ASN pupils to 183,491 in 2017. That’s a lot of Bills who are standing on the edge of change, with a diagnosis of ASN providing them with two paths – one with the appropriate levels of support and one without.
It’s clear from the four capacities of the Curriculum for Excellence that we want to provide Bill and the other 183,490 ASN pupils with the same opportunity for successful outcomes as every other pupil in Scotland. Then why is that so many pupils with ASN end up on the path without support?
Logically we would expect that the significant increase in pupils requiring additional support would be mirrored by increased levels of investment in specialist staff. Yet the statistics clearly show a decline in funding for such crucial roles, with a reduction of more than 12 per cent in the number of specialist ASN teachers, from 3,850 in 2012 to 3,358.
This represents a new low. In 2012 while each ASN teacher was supporting 31 pupils, by 2017 this figure had risen to 55.
Indeed, average spend per pupil by local authorities on additional support for learning (local authority primary, secondary and special schools), has dropped from £4,276 in 2012/13 to £3,548 in 2016/17, amounting to a £728 cut per pupil.
How is Bill going to be able to follow the path to successful outcomes when there isn’t the funding or staffing to provide the support that would enable him to benefit from school education?
While the concept of mainstreaming pupils with ASN is laudable, in light of the current funding trend, it’s difficult to see how it’s sustainable.
If schools are unable to provide the required support for pupils with autism, ADHD or ODD (to name but a few) due to financial constraints then how can pupils, like Bill, ever feel truly included within their classes or indeed their school?
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why the exclusion rates for ASN pupils in 2016 were almost four times higher than non-ASN pupils. Bill, like most pupils with ASN, most likely had a difficult road to the point of being diagnosed, with a number of negative experiences throughout his time within education.
For many pupils and indeed their families, the point of diagnosis can be an immense relief, an opportunity for things to change.
This is the Sliding Doors moment – where one experience will lead to a successful and positive destination while the other could see Bill leaving school with significantly less than his non-ASN peers. The difference between these two paths is simply whether or not we are able to provide the support ASN pupils are entitled to.
Chris Green, head teacher, Harbour Point School – Spark of Genius, member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition.