Mark O’Donnell: Urgent action required to support children with additional needs

Scotland’s new Cabinet ­Secretary for Finance, Economy and Fair Work will have a big job on their hands. There are many competing priorities which are being debated through the Scottish Parliament’s budget process – our health and social care services, our schools, tackling homelessness and investing in a green economy, to name just but a few. For all the talk about easing ­austerity, there is no doubt that the Scottish Government still has a ­challenging budget to deal with and difficult decisions to make.

Images of Royal Blind School at Canaan Lane in Edinburgh, May 21st 2019. © Helen Pugh Photography Tel: 07837 533051
Images of Royal Blind School at Canaan Lane in Edinburgh, May 21st 2019. © Helen Pugh Photography Tel: 07837 533051

Even amongst so many important areas which can make a compelling case for extra funds, we believe the need to provide better support to ­disabled pupils in our schools is now an urgent priority.

As a charity supporting people with visual impairment, we have seen investment in specialist education fall even as the numbers of blind and partially-sighted pupils have increased. The number of pupils with visual impairment has more than doubled since 2010 to more than 4,500, but investment in specialist provision has not kept pace.

The presumption of mainstreaming has resulted in more disabled children being educated in their local schools. Of course, this is a good thing, but only if pupils can access the specialist teaching they require to have a level playing field. As a charity we have sought to support this new approach by developing new ­services at the Royal Blind School, increasingly supporting pupils with visual impairment in mainstream ­education as well as at the school itself. We want to work with councils and the Scottish Government to make this new approach work, but that can only happen if the right ­funding is available at a local level. That is not the case today.

We are far from alone in these concerns, which are shared by a number of charities who work with children with additional support needs. Official figures published last year showed the number of Scottish pupils with additional support needs has risen by nearly 70 per cent since 2012. Research by the Scottish ­Children’s Services Coalition shows that ­average spending by local authorities on additional ­support needs has fallen by £889 per pupil over the same period, a 26.1 per cent real terms cut.

This is why we have joined with the Scottish Children’s Services ­Coalition, the National Deaf ­Children’s Society and the National Autistic Society Scotland to make a collective call for urgent action to increase the ­funding available for additional support needs.

We understand the budget ­pressures the Scottish Government and local authorities are under, but not to take action is to fail pupils who most need our ­support. It is damaging their life chances, because these pupils face an attainment gap with pupils who do not have additional support needs. They have fewer employment opportunities too.

We also believe there is scope to make desperately needed new funds available. In the UK Spending Review in September, the UK government announced an extra £700 million for pupils with special education needs following concerns over significant pressures on services in England.

Our understanding is that this is new funding and so should result in Barnett consequentials of almost £70 million. We believe it is vital this funding is part of improved investment in provision for pupils with additional support needs in Scotland’s schools.

There is great work going on in many schools in Scotland to support pupils with additional needs, and with the right specialist support many pupils have had great success at school. It was also very welcome that an additional £15 million was announced by the Scottish Government last September for pupil ­support assistants for children with additional support needs.

Now we need to go further to ensure every pupil who requires it has access to specialist support. If we don’t, we risk failing to meet the needs of an increasing number of pupils and the attainment and employment gap widening further. The opportunity, with the right investment, is to embrace a new approach where pupils can access the support they need in the best educational setting for them – in a mainstream school, in a specialist school or through a mix of provision. The principle of Getting It Right For Every Child is at the core of our education system. If we are to live up to this commitment for every child and young person in our schools, we all have to do better for pupils with additional support needs.

Mark O’Donnell, chief executive, Royal Blind and Scottish War Blinded