Warnings have been made that efforts to close Scotland's attainment gap will prove impossible to achieve unless the overall number of support staff grows substantially from the levels recorded in official figures.
Teaching unions and other education bodies say tightening local budgets are making it ever harder for councils to provide enough skilled support staff to help the growing number of children with additional support needs (ASN).
Those concerns are backed up a Tes Scotland Twitter poll of education professionals, with only 8 per cent of 502 respondents saying their school had enough support staff.
As well as concerns over a worsening ratio of specialist staff to ASN pupils across Scotland, statistics show how varied the picture can be in individual local authorities.
Eighteen councils have zero behaviour support staff in their schools, for example; 18 have zero school nurses “or other medical” staff; while 13 have zero home-school link workers – although two authorities do have centrally employed nurses or similar, and six have centrally employed home-school link workers.
Eileen Prior, executive director of Connect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council), said parent councils regularly report “inadequate” support for children with ASN, a shortfall that has been exacerbated by local budget cuts.
Prior added: “We were shocked to see that the exclusion rate for children and young people with ASN in 2017 was nearly four times higher – at 11,500 – than exclusion rates for other children; this is unacceptable. We believe this reflects the issue of wholly inadequate additional support for these vulnerable children and young people.”
School support staff are an “underpaid, undervalued part of a school team”, according to Dougie Atkinson, professional officer for the Voice union, which represents many such workers. He said: “Without them, teacher workload would go through the roof and children’s support needs would not be met, with all the consequences that would bring.”
Unless current trends are reversed, Atkinson warned, education secretary John Swinney “can wave goodbye to any narrowing of the attainment gap, his prized policy”.
Meanwhile, the EIS teaching union states that cuts to support staff have “heaped additional pressure” on teachers.
Andrea Bradley, EIS assistant secretary with responsibility for education and equality, said: “Reductions in specialist staff have had an impact right across the curriculum. For example, cuts to numbers of school librarians run counter to the emphasis on improving levels of literacy, while reduced numbers of technicians have a damaging impact in technical and science subjects.”
Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, argued that local cuts are affecting such families with ASN children “disproportionately harshly”.
She added: “Staff are undertrained and ill-equipped to deal with the sheer number of pupils needing help… Parents know that local authority purses are empty, but don’t know what they can do.”
Swinney said that new statistics, released last week, show that more than 13,000 pupil-support assistants were employed in Scotland in 2017. He said: “While this figure is not comparable with the total for last year of around 12,000, we are determined that all children and young people get the support they need to reach their full potential.
“Children and young people should learn in the environment that best suits their needs, whether in a mainstream or special school setting, and 95 per cent of children with ASN are now educated in mainstream schools.”
He added: “All teachers provide support to pupils, not just ‘support for learning’ teachers. The total number of staff involved in helping pupils [with ASN], whether teachers or support staff, is now 16,600.
“We are committed to maintaining teacher numbers nationally, with the right skills in the right places, and the latest data shows teacher numbers increased in 2017 to 51,513.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 10 August edition of Tes Scotland. Subscribers can read the full article here. To subscribe, click here. This week's Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here.