Children who need additional support in school don't always receive it - particularly in the mainstream, where most youngsters are now taught.
In 2004, the Scottish Parliament passed the Additional Support for Learning Act, placing a duty on schools and authorities to assess their pupils and provide whatever support they needed. The impact has been hard to assess until now.
The first detailed study of its effects has just been published in North Ayrshire. The education authority commissioned Children in Scotland to carry out the research, and they got responses from 1,200 parents and children. Three-quarters of the parents were happy with the help their children received, while three-quarters of the children said adults in school listened and tried to help. More than 80 per cent of the parents found education professionals helpful. "Most pupils and parents expressed a positive opinion about additional support for learning services and staff," reports Children in Scotland.
North Ayrshire has made "a laudable start in turning the good intentions of the ASL Act" into reality.
But there is work still to be done, says the national charity, whose researchers heard some harrowing tales of mums and dads struggling to get children's needs recognised:
- "The educational psychologist only met with our child for five minutes and observed her in class. We didn't recognise her in the report."
- "I've said all along that he has a problem, but they tell me he's lazy. He'll do a bit of work, then stop and get really frightened in case he's not doing the right thing."
- "The teacher said he was lazy, the class clown, and she didn't want him in class."
Much of that criticism relates to a time before the new Act and North Ayrshire's response to it, says Allan Cowieson, quality improvement officer for additional support for learning. "But there are clear lessons to be learned. The overwhelming message from unhappy parents is that their mistrust comes from years of trying to be taken seriously," he says.
"What we are telling our schools is: what you do at the very earliest stages makes the difference. If teachers treat parents' concerns seriously at the start, they will win a partner rather than create an enemy."
The research provides authoritative backing to a clear message being conveyed to schools around North Ayrshire, says Mr Cowieson.
"I remember, as a teacher, that if I was the one who raised concerns about a child, we had no more problems," he says. "But if parents had to come to us, it created mistrust from the start - and it was almost impossible to get them back on board."
Good teachers know when they start having difficulties with a child, he says. "They might not know if that child has a real problem. But what we're saying is that teachers should start formal intervention at that stage, as if it was a genuine difficulty. That has to be the default. Cases become entrenched because of prolonged delay in acknowledging a difficulty."
As part of North Ayrshire's staged intervention framework - based on HMIE guidance and formulated since the Act was passed - this is not about paperwork for its own sake, says Mr Cowieson. "It's about a process that gets parents involved as soon as teachers can't find a way to meet a child's needs."
Initial fears that this proactive, teacher-led approach to children who might - or might not - have additional support needs would "cause the floodgates to open and swamp schools with parental concerns" have turned out to be unfounded, he says.
"When we started talking to schools about this, only a few came on board. But more are doing so. And they are finding they no longer have issues with parents, because they know what we know - about the difficulties a child is having, what we are trying to do, the additional resources we're putting in place and the impact that is having."
Parents and children talked to Children in Scotland about 16 different categories of difficulty - autistic spectrum, dyslexia, attention deficit, Meares-Irlen, cerebral palsy, Down's syndrome, global development delay and so on. Only a minority of mainstream teachers can be confident of responding adequately, or even recognising these.
Universities are giving new teachers better grounding in additional support needs than before, says Mr Cowieson, who lectured at Northern College until a few years ago.
For teachers who qualified before the presumption of mainstreaming, professional development has to be the answer. "No single course can address the spectrum of needs," he says. "So we have a massive commitment to additional support for learning CPD, with an emphasis recently on dyslexia, autism and ADHD."
North Ayrshire's new policy on dyslexia is a good example of the rethinking required by the Act and the presumption of mainstreaming.
"When I started in support for learning, psychologists told us never to use the word `dyslexia'," says Mr Cowieson. "But we now advise our teachers to use it with confidence whenever they feel a child meets the British Psychological Society definition: `Dyslexia is evident when accurate and fluent word reading andor spelling develops very incompletely or with great difficulty.'
"Notice it says `is evident' and not `may be evident'," he stresses. "That means teachers can make the judgment themselves. They don't have to wait for a psychologist's assessment. It will improve provision for children and relations with parents."
North Ayrshire must be doing something right, he says, because it is one of the few authorities with no tribunals - the mechanism under the new Act for parents in unresolved disputes with their authority. "We have lots of schools which address additional support needs very well, with efficient, strategic and planned use of resources - and parents who can tell you exactly what the school is doing."
As chair of the Association of Support for Learning Officers, Mr Cowieson is aware of different approaches taken in other authorities. "They all operate some kind of a staged intervention but - no doubt reflecting local circumstances - some have more emphasis on the higher stages. Our focus in North Ayrshire is on the early stages. Get those right and there is much less need for higher-stage intervention."
Discussions of the new Act are often skewed by a misplaced emphasis on coordinated support plans, says director of education Carol Kirk. "It should be about all the layers underneath. In North Ayrshire, we put great effort into helping children with all sorts of difficulties to access the curriculum. It is about personalising education. That is the key to making it work for every child."
Copies of the summary report on additional support for learning in North Ayrshire at: www.childreninscotland.org.uk
CLIMBING-WALLS AND SOUNDS OF THE AFRICAN DRUM
Until two years ago, Chloe Graham, an S1 pupil at Largs Academy, was heavily dependent on her mum.
"It was difficult when she started at primary school because Chloe has spina bifida and has to be catheterised," says Carol Graham.
"Classroom assistants didn't feel able to do that. So I had to go into school and do it every day. I also had to go on school trips with her. As she got older, she didn't want me around all the time, but I still had to be there."
Eventually, Chloe decided she would go on a week's holiday to Arran only if her mum stayed at home. "We contacted education to see what could be done," says Mrs Graham. "The nurse co-ordinator for disabled children and the head of school nurses came to see us. They were fantastic. They organised nurses for her. They showed her how to catheterise herself."
The parents visited Arran and spoke to the organisers because, unlike Chloe, they were "a bit jittery" about the holiday.
"You told them I wouldn't climb the climbing-wall," Chloe reminds her. "But I did."
That first time away from her mum made a huge difference to Chloe's confidence, says Mrs Graham. "She took off from then on. I could see it in her face as she came off the boat. She was beaming."
Chloe loves school, she says, and secondary is even more fun than primary. "Technical is my favourite subject. Classroom assistants help me get around but I manage in classes myself."
The transition from primary to secondary was handled well, says Mrs Graham. "We had lots of meetings and everyone was very helpful. Everything seemed to just kick in."
Mainstreaming is one of those good ideas that come down from government without any of the details filled in, says Chloe's father, David. "It took lots of time to work those out. It was a learning process for us all."
As soon as Shaun Donnelly starts tapping the small African drum between his knees, it's obvious he's a natural drummer. The toe-tapping rhythms from his fast-moving fingers have a fluency and assurance that can't be taught.
"I also play the harmonica and glockenspiel," he smiles. "My big brother only plays dominoes."
Shaun has chromosome 22 trisomy mosaic, a rare genetic disorder that means he is small and has internal problems. "He's had spinal surgery and heart operations and has sight and hearing loss," says his mother, May Mayberry. "He is very sociable though, a real people magnet. We go to lots of folk festivals where musicians often invite Shaun up to play.
"North Ayrshire has given us loads of help from even before he went to Springside Primary, which was a great wee school."
Shaun is now in second year at Greenwood Academy, a huge new secondary. "It was a bit scary at first, but I've settled in," he says. "I always have a classroom assistant with me, but I'm often late for classes - short-cuts are sometimes long-cuts."
His mum laughs and explains that Shaun has an electric wheelchair but would rather walk. "My favourite subject is music," he says. "I didn't used to like maths but we've got a new teacher. She finds websites that have games, but you're learning too. She doesn't shout at people if they're slow. She has a way with kids that have learning difficulties."
Excused French and geography, Shaun spends those periods taking a breather in learning support. "Right through his schooling, there have been good people looking out for him," says his mum. "My only concern is the transition to adulthood, which is a big grey area for people with disabilities. We don't know what he's going to do then."
"I know exactly what I'm going to do," Shaun says. "I'm going to be a computer games designer."