The start of the year failed to herald the new beginning we were all hoping for. Instead, we entered 2021 under a series of national restrictions, and children and young people across the country were told that they would be starting the new academic term at home.
As term began, it was clear lessons were learned from the first round of remote learning. Schools had more opportunity to be organised and, anecdotally, we heard that plans and lessons felt more structured. Pupils said their day was better organised and the lessons more effective, engaging and enjoyable.
Teachers and other school staff are working tirelessly to deliver a valuable educational experience in exceptionally challenging circumstances. We are aware of the extra work this requires, the challenges practitioners (often parents themselves) face and the pressure they are under. We also know they miss their classes and face-to-face teaching.
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But missing from many of the discussions about the experiences of the last year are the voices of children and young people with additional support needs (ASN). This gap in knowledge is well known, and efforts have been made to change this with focus groups and "rapid reviews", but as yet we do not have a clear picture of the different views, experiences and preferences. It is important, now more than ever, that we ensure the voices of those with additional support needs, and their families, are heard.
Schools reopening: ASN pupils need flexibility
I wrote for Tes last August that the return to school, whilst welcome, presented extra challenges for those who require additional support. In that same vein, a return to home learning, and the need to continually manage change or uncertainty, is affecting children and young people with additional support needs, and their families, more acutely than others.
Those young people with ASN involved in the Young Ambassadors for Inclusion project have spoken candidly about their experiences. At the end of last year, many told us that returning to school was welcome. Like many young people, they missed their peers and the opportunity for social interaction. They also spoke highly of schools trying to maintain some semblance of normality on their return.
However, they also told us that the restrictions in place were having a negative impact on interaction, with many experiencing a lack of consistent, appropriate support. A return to home learning has only exacerbated these issues.
And it has proven challenging to address the complex issues facing children and young people with additional support needs, who have been tasked with leading their own learning with very limited specialist support. For parents of those with complex additional needs, this has been particularly difficult.
Since returning to home learning, parents and pupils have told us that one of the biggest challenges they continue to face is related to the use of technology. Remote learning can be tricky for many, but for those with support needs there are additional issues in managing and navigating online platforms. For example, one parent told us that although the school had universally opted to use Microsoft Teams to deliver lessons, this was done differently by each teacher, resulting in inconsistency and causing anxiety and confusion for her child
We have also been told about issues in terms of expectations. We are hearing from parents, both of children with additional support needs and those without, that the volume of work issued feels higher this time around. We are being told that more consideration is needed of the fact that those with additional support needs may need longer to read or digest instructions or have additional questions. Some pupils report being chased for work whilst others say they have been afforded more time and understanding. This reflects the inconsistency in practice that this group of pupils often face.
There is also a longer-term issue in terms of reintegrating into the structure of a school day. Some families have told us their child prefers to be at home and will likely find a return to school very difficult.
These issues were also part of the feedback from those in our Young Ambassadors for Inclusion project when they spoke to us about their experiences in January.
All these concerns point to a need to consider a more flexible approach to schooling. Could we, for example, allow a blended learning approach for some children on a more permanent basis?
The promise of all pupils being back in schools in some way from later this month is welcome. But we should be aiming for better.
When it comes to children and young people with additional support needs, we need to be able to respond flexibly with a range of individually tailored support measures available. Applying a blanket approach will not work.
We must listen to the experiences of children, young people and their families and ensure that their voices are heard. Crucially, we must be guided by children and families, in line with the recommendations of the 2020 ASL (additional support for learning) review.
Listening to the voices of experience will ensure that the measures put in place and the support offered going forward meet need – both in terms of educational delivery as well as emotional and psychological support. And all of us working with children and young people with support for learning needs now must make sure that we use our evidence base to champion where change is needed.
Sally Cavers is head of inclusion with Children in Scotland
Children in Scotland supports Enquire, the national advice service for additional support for learning. If you are concerned about the education of your child, you can contact its free helpline (0345 123 2303) or access its online resources.