Scottish schools have become markedly better at educating pupils with additional support needs (ASN), a new government report has revealed.
ASN pupils, 95 per cent of whom are educated in mainstream schools, are gaining more qualifications, are excluded less often, turn up for more classes and are doing better after they leave, the report states.
Attainment has also improved significantly. Average tariff scores, which allow comparison of different qualifications among school-leavers, rose from 121 in 2009-10 to 206 in 2011-12 for students with ASN. Pupils not classified with ASN scored an average of 433.
Scotland's broadened definition of ASN could be a factor in the findings. But the data for specific needs shows big improvements in scores for pupils with learning disabilities, dyslexia, visual and hearing impairments, physical and mental health problems and those on the autistic spectrum.
Exclusion rates for ASN students in both primary and secondary schools have also fallen. Attendance has improved across the board by 1 per cent, and was only slightly worse than that of non-ASN pupils.
Prospects for school-leavers with ASN appear to have improved as well, with more of these students in education, training or employment and only 17 per cent unemployed in 2011-12, down from 25 per cent in 2009-10. Researchers said it was difficult to tell how figures had been affected by broader ASN definitions, but suggested that universities and colleges might be doing more to help school-leavers with specific needs.
The report also highlights a "marked improvement" in special school inspections. While 65 per cent of quality indicators in 2008-12 were excellent, very good or good, in 2012-13 that rose to 86 per cent. The report also states that more disputes about children's ASN needs are being dealt with locally, "preventing unnecessary emotional distress" to children.
But much more remains to be done, particularly around pupils with "hidden" ASN, such as looked-after children, carers, those with mental health problems and those struggling with the transition from one stage of education to another.
Mary Hoey, assistant director of Education Scotland, highlighted transition as a problem area at a Capita conference in Edinburgh last week. She also said that the different approaches around the country to identifying ASN pupils was a major issue.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union, said the report highlighted "some excellent examples of effective practice" in schools but that these had to be set against growing numbers of ASN pupils in mainstream education.
"Given the level of cutbacks in school budgets, including teacher numbers and the availability of pupil-support assistants, it would be naive to conclude that austerity measures have had no impact in this area," he said.
Ken Cunningham, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, described the findings as "very positive" but said they should be treated with caution. Schools had responded well to changing ASN demands, but they had done that during a fierce funding crisis and "almost unprecedented curricular change," he said.
Iain Nisbet, chair of the group that advises the Scottish government on additional support for learning, told the conference he was encouraged that children's needs within the broader definition of ASN - including looked-after children and pupils with little English - were being picked up more regularly.
It was "terrifically exciting" that several different developments, including the Children and Young People Act and the Doran Review, were coming together as a "meaningful whole", he said.
The Scottish Children's Services Coalition said it was "greatly encouraged" by improvements in attendance and attainment. But member Sophie Pilgrim, director of charity Kindred, added: "We find it increasingly frustrating that we cannot get precise figures on the numbers of children with ASN, and this raises concerns as to whether some local authorities are fulfilling their statutory requirements."
Susan Grasekamp, chief executive of Scottish Disability Equality Forum, said there were "heartening" findings in the report but added: "We can't be complacent. Pupils with additional support needs are still achieving far less in Scottish schools than other pupils."