Tom Peterkin: Failure to support vulnerable kids risks a generation

More must be done to help pupils in difficult circumstances through no fault of their own, writes Tom Peterkin.

Nicola Sturgeon has made closing the educational attainment gap a priority for her Government
Nicola Sturgeon has made closing the educational attainment gap a priority for her Government

“In the last two weeks I have been sworn at, called a ‘f***ing hoor’, kicked at and threatened with scissors,” was the anguished cry of a dedicated professional as she explained what things were like at her work.

Was she a barmaid in a particularly disreputable pub? Or was she a prison officer in one of Scotland’s toughest jails? No, this particular dedicated professional happened to be a teacher at one of the country’s better primary schools.

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She was one of several anonymous teachers interviewed for our sister paper Scotland on Sunday in February for an article exploring the state of our classrooms.

The challenges faced by teachers were outlined in explicit terms and one of the common themes to emerge was how stressed-out teachers struggled to cope with pupils with behavioural issues.

This week, the issue has come to the fore once again with the publication of new figures suggesting that the number of school staff trained to deal with the most challenging pupils has halved over the last five years.

The data revealed that the number of behaviour support staff fell from 180 in 2012 to 79 last year.

The number of educational psychologists also declined from 411 to 356.

While there was an increase in the overall number of support staff – including classroom assistants, the rise had not kept up with the increase in children with ‘Additional Support Needs’ (ASN).

A six per cent rise in the number of specialist support staff from 12,992 in 2012 to 13,761 last year was dwarfed by the 55.5 per cent increase in children identified as having ASN. Between 2012 and last year, the number of ASN children rocketed from 118,034 to 183,491.

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So, despite an increase in support staff, the ratio of support staff to children has worsened.

Little wonder then that Children’s Services Coalition (CSC), a group of charities and schools specialising in young people, expressed alarm at the statistics.

Describing the data as “deeply disturbing”, the CSC warned of a “lost generation” claiming thousands of ASN children were failing to get the support they need to succeed.

The term Additional Support Needs is a broad one which covers a wide range of challenges that pupils have to over come.

It includes children with dyslexia, autism, ADHD, those with disabilities, children with behavioural and emotional problems plus those with difficult family backgrounds.

In other words, those losing out are some of our most vulnerable children, who find themselves in difficult circumstances through no fault of their own and are being denied the support they need.

As the CSC pointed out, ASN disproportionately affects children from lower income families and those from areas of deprivation.

Therefore it follows that if Nicola Sturgeon and her Education Secretary John Swinney want to close the attainment gap – that sees rich pupils outperform their poorer counterparts – then this is something that must be tackled.

Both Ms Sturgeon and Mr Swinney have indicated that they are very serious about closing the attainment gap. So much so, that Ms Sturgeon has made it one of her key aims and has urged the public to judge her on how successful she is.

Judging by the data published this week, there is still a very long way to go before every child in Scotland gets the support they deserve.

As everyone acknowledges, delivering that sort of change is by no means easy and requires a huge amount of investment to pay and train the specialist staff required to educate ASN children and increase their chances of a fulfilling and fruitful life.

The Scottish Government has made much of its aim that ASN children should be taught in mainstream schools. Indeed, in his response to the data outlining the shortage of ASN support staff, Mr Swinney pointed out that 95 per cent of children with additional support needs are now educated in mainstream schools.

“Mainstreaming” ASN children is an entirely laudable aim. But if there is a lack of proper support for ASN children in mainstream schools, the policy can prove counterproductive.

That, at least, is what the teachers interviewed by Scotland on Sunday described in blunt terms earlier this year.

“I can see the impact of this daily onslaught of aggression, violence and mental health issues is having,” said the female teacher who had been threatened with a pair of scissors.

“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.”

Descriptions such as this paint a picture of a system that is unfair on the teachers and, most importantly, unfair on the pupils – particularly those who have Additional Support Needs.

If the Scottish Government is serious about closing the attainment gap and raising academic standards – and we are assured it is – something has to be done.

A good place to start would be to deliver the sort of support that our children require. It is a tough ask, but a necessary one.