On 27 February last year, I submitted my report on the Review of the Implementation of the Additional Support for Learning (ASL) legislation in Scotland to deputy first minister and education secretary John Swinney. This concluded my formal involvement with the process; less than four weeks later, we entered the first period of Covid lockdown.
Over the past year or so, I have thought many times of the children and young people, parents and carers who shared their stories with me during the review. I cannot imagine how much more difficult life has been for them as a result of the pandemic.
Everything being reported on the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people highlights increased levels of mental distress, so the impact of that on those facing other challenges in life and education will be further exacerbated and complicated. Also, not to forget teachers, pupil support assistants and health professionals whose own resilience has been eroded over this past awful period. I heard from so many professionals who are parents and carers for children with additional support needs (ASN) themselves, and who bring that lived experience and understanding into their working lives.
More from Angela Morgan: Relationships 'at heart' of what pupils with ASN need
Additional support needs: Why do we not focus on ASN pupils' gifts and assets?
Looking back at the findings of my review and the recommendations I made, I am convinced that they are even more crucial now to achieving the aspirations of the legislation, which was passed to ensure that all children and young people in Scotland flourish and achieve to the best of their ability.
Additional support for learning: Success shouldn't just be measured by exam results
For example, I clearly recommended a different approach to recognising achievement and success beyond the narrow confines of exams and qualifications. Yet, we have had contradictory narratives on children and education running in parallel in political and public discourse over the past year: the need to support and nurture young people to re-establish their health and wellbeing, recognising that learning is holistic and beyond academic knowledge – and the obsession with exams and qualifications as the only apparently meaningful measure.
Where are the children, their hopes and fears, in the midst of arguments about SQA algorithms?
To be clear – I am not for a moment suggesting that children with additional support needs cannot achieve success through exams. I heard repeatedly from children and young people themselves that they did not want to be defined or limited by the barriers to their learning, but understood as whole human beings. They want to be valued, liked and accepted for the gifts and talents they do have and their potential to do more – not for what they cannot do.
Not being listened to and the resultant frustration and despair was the theme that underpinned most of what I heard during the review – from children and young people, parents and carers and from so many committed teachers and other professionals who felt that they were unable to provide the children they cared about with the support and attention they knew they needed.
All players feel powerless within a system that does not value children who do not conform to an outdated image of a child as a unit of learning process.
The disconnect to the reality of the profile of children and young people in our education system continues to astonish me. At the time of the review, the most up-to-date stat on children with identified additional support for learning needs was 30.9 per cent; now, it is 32.3 per cent.
This is not a minority and marginal group within our population. Schools know this and politicians know this. I am told their postbags are dominated by letters from distressed parents and carers.
So, while my review had limited scope, I hope it provides a reference point and benchmark for not just the technical and process improvements, but also the cultural change necessary for full inclusion of all children and all their differences.
Key areas of focus include an urgent redefinition of "mainstream" education – currently, "mainstream" is not shaped to meet the needs of over a third of children. As a senior school leader commented to me: "Schools need to be ready for children and young people as they are, not as we think they should be…"
Also, we need a new perspective on the ownership of expertise – recognising that children and young people, parents and carers must be real partners in understanding and planning, and that listening to their views and experience is no threat to the expertise that professionals bring. There is no shortcut to achieving this: open communication, trust and relationships that allow for challenge and dissent without acrimony are essential.
Institutional and system change is not easy, but Scotland has promised all children and young people the right to flourish and fulfil their learning potential – we should be proud of that aspiration. But "the gap between rhetoric and reality" cited in the Scottish Parliament in February as the key message of my review has to be addressed in practice, and with urgency.
Political agendas move on but each month and year in the life of a child is significant. My call to new education secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville is to put the children who do not "fit in" at the heart of planning for education in Scotland, and to reshape it accordingly.
If we continue to consider them as an afterthought, we will continue to fail to meet the spirit and practice of the rights they are entitled to.
If, however, their needs are recognised and met, then we can, indeed, finally be confident that all our children will flourish.
Angela Morgan was the chair of the landmark review of additional support for learing (ASL) published in June 2020, and is writing in a personal capacity. This is a version of a blog post originally published by national parents' organisation Connect