The Scottish Government pupil census shows that in 2017, 183,491 pupils in Scotland’s publicly funded primary, secondary and special schools were identified as having additional support needs (ASN).
This is a quarter of all pupils, and 59.9% of them are boys.
One of these boys is my son. He was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2015 at the age of four. But he is not alone. The number of pupils identified with ASN has increased by 55.5% since 2012.
Additional support needs is a broad term that encompasses physical or mental health problems, learning difficulties or those who encounter adverse life events like bereavement or divorce in the family. The needs of the children who fall under this umbrella are as diverse as the issues that they face, but under the Scottish Government’s inclusive approach to education, they are all in the same boat.
And that boat has its course firmly set for mainstream education. But what will they find when they land?
The latest figures for additional support for learning teachers, the people who are there to help children with ASN to cope in this environment, fell from 16,377 in 2012 to 15,880 in 2016, a 12% drop in four years.
So it falls to teachers to pick up the slack when it comes to helping these children cope. And when it comes to children with the communication, sensory and behavioural issues that autism presents, this can be a full-time job.
My son was diagnosed shortly before starting primary one and I decided that mainstream school would be the best option for him. I naively thought that because of his diagnosis he would automatically receive extra support in the classroom. When it became evident that this would not be the case there followed a frantic battle to get him a support for learning teacher.
This was to be the first of many battles that I would undertake to ensure that he wouldn’t be lost, anxious and unable to cope in this new and challenging environment. I was one of the lucky ones and we were assigned a support assistant to help with everything from going to the toilet, to handling the noise of the lunch hall, to completing learning tasks. It soon became evident that without the help of a full-time, one-to-one support for learning assistant, the time the teacher had to spend helping him with the daily school routine – before he even began to learn – was going to be seriously detrimental to the other children in his class. This is the case across the board: if class teachers aren’t provided with sufficient help from support teachers it’s not just the ASN children who suffer, it’s all of the other children in the class too.
Primary two brought another challenge in the form of a brand new school building. On the morning of the great unveiling I joined the throng of parents wandering around in awe of the impressive new centre for learning. The classrooms with their large windows and big open entrances led out into an atrium filled with interesting cubby holes in which to read, a working kitchen, sandpits, work benches and a raft of books and toys. As the other parents smiled and pointed, my heart sank. I knew that this space wouldn’t work for my son. Without a door on his classroom, he wouldn’t stay inside.
Unfortunately, my fears became a reality and it was a nightmare for teachers and support staff to get my son through the day without a major meltdown. On more than one occasion his sister had to be summoned to try to find out why he was so distressed (his communication issues make it hard for him to express his emotions verbally). She is often good at understanding what is making him anxious, but at less than two years older than him, she found his noisy, public meltdowns highly embarrassing.
At one point he had a workstation in a spare classroom and spent no time with his classmates. During this time he learned nothing and regularly became upset, lashing out at pupils and staff, spending most of his time wandering around the atrium. He had become utterly isolated in mainstream school. Unable to cope with the sensory issues the new building created, he was lost.
If the Scottish Government are insistent on mainstream education being right for every child, why are the needs of the 183,491 children with ASN not being taken into consideration when they are ploughing money into building new schools?
I understand the thinking behind the presumption to mainstream – it is important that my son and other children with autism grow up feeling that they are part of the community and become accustomed to being around other children. It is equally important that the children in his class learn about his needs and understand why he, and others, may behave differently to them.
This is a valuable lesson and the best way to ensure that people with autism are able to grow into accepted members of society. But without serious investment in staff training, support for learning teachers and consideration for the needs of the most vulnerable children, it is hopeless. Because for children with autism, and many other additional needs, they cannot learn in a place where they feel uncomfortable and anxious at best, and isolated and terrified at worst.
Following the issues my son faced in primary two, I fought another battle with the help of the school, to get him a place for part of the week at a school with a special provision for children with autism. Following countless meetings, rafts of paperwork and a nerve-wracking wait to hear the decision of the planning advisory group, we were granted a joint placement, with some days spent in our local school and some in the provision.
Here the classrooms are more traditional and the nine children in the class are taught by a specially-trained teacher, along with three support for learning teachers. Here my son thrives and learns. But like every other parent of an autistic child in Scotland, I can’t relax. His placement is only guaranteed for a term at a time. Then more meetings, paperwork and twice a year the dreaded wait to hear the decision of the placement panel.
A report by Holyrood’s Education and Skills committee published last year, acknowledged that the policy of inclusive education for children with additional support needs is not functioning properly. Clearly there’s inadequate funding and the cost of providing one-to-one support in a mainstream classroom is high. But if the cash isn’t there then it’s time to look at seperate areas for children with ASN within mainstream settings.
Surely this small-group formula provides the best of both worlds, allowing children to learn in an environment where they can cope without the need for one-to-one support? It also allows for an easy transition between provision and mainstream classes, without the need to attend more than one school. It won’t work for every child, but that’s the point – nothing does.
I’m one of the lucky parents. I have support from my family and employer. Because of this I have the ability to fight my son’s case calmly, despite often feeling angry and frustrated by the way the system works.
Not all parents are this fortunate. Bringing up a child with autism, or with any number of other additional needs, is often exhausting and always challenging. It’s time that the Scottish Government started to make life easier for children with ASN and their parents, rather than forcing them into an eternal struggle for the support they so desperately need.