A legal right

6th April 2012 at 01:00
More children than ever before are entitled to additional support for their learning - but are they all getting it?

The Additional Support for Learning Act is one of these rare pieces of legislation which command almost-universal support.

Teachers, headteachers, parents and council workers all agree that at its heart stands a very noble intention: to provide extra help and support for all children and young people who, for whatever reason, require it in the long or short-term, so they can make the most of their school education.

But with budgets tight, resources - whether for training or staffing - are being cut while parents' expectations have risen. Even a new government report, evaluating the impact of the legislation, has found inconsistencies in provision.

Unlike previous legislation, the ASL act not only includes children with a mental or physical disability, but also those in care; carers for family members; children who are struggling because of a bereavement or parental divorce; children who do not have English as their first language; those who are suffering a short-term medical condition; children from Gypsytraveller families; and "gifted" youngsters.

In 2009, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill to amend the original 2004 act, making it easier for parents to request a place in a school outwith their local authority, and improve access to mediation and dispute resolution services and the Additional Support Needs Tribunals for Scotland.

Since its inception, the act has provided for a number of different levels of planning of support, including "personal learning planning" and Individualised Educational Programmes. Children with a need for high levels of support from a number of different services can be assessed for a Coordinated Support Plan, setting out how these needs will be met, and young people's views of what they want to do after they leave school have to be taken into consideration.

Active involvement and continuing dialogue between parents and their child's school is encouraged by the legislation, and should that relationship break down, it allows all participating parties to consult more formal routes of conflict resolution, including mediation and dispute resolution, for which local authorities carry the cost.

Just over a year since the amended act came into force, it appears to be delivering some successes, albeit not universally. Professor Martyn Rouse, emeritus professor at the University of Aberdeen's School of Education, believes it is working "reasonably well" and has led to a change in language - although he acknowledges that implementation is still "patchy" and some of his colleagues argue it has changed very little.

Broadening the definition of which children are in need of support - from the traditionally narrowly-defined special needs to a much broader definition - has been "very helpful", he says.

"I think we can be proud in Scotland of being one of the few countries in the world that has this broad definition within its legislation," says Professor Rouse, an expert in pupil inclusion.

A spokesman for the charity Enquire, the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning, agreed: "We feel the strength of the act lies in its focus on the diverse range of reasons why children may require additional support, joint working between all partners, parental involvement and the provision of services such as Enquire and independent mediation to resolve disputes before they escalate."

Last month, the Scottish government published its first report assessing the act's impact - Supporting Children's and Young People's Learning: A report on progress of implementation of the Educational (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 (As Amended).

It concluded that most learners were now getting "successful provision", but that the picture was not unequivocally positive.

The report also found that because local authorities are in charge of its implementation, there remained inconsistency and variability in the ways in which they were "carrying out this duty and in the extent to which authorities and practitioners view coordinated support plans as useful in planning and improving provision for learners".

Crucially, it concluded that more had to be done to support specific groups of learners who are now supposed to be covered under the act.

While staff in schools were now more aware of the "hidden factors" that may act as barriers to learning, such as a divorce or bereavement in a family or long-term illness of a sibling or parent, there was "scope to have more effective approaches to identifying the more hidden needs of those who are looked after, young carers and those with mental health difficulties".

Children looked after at home continue to struggle more than their peers, and staff in schools are not always sufficiently alert to the "multiple barriers to learning that children who are looked after, either away from home or at home, may be experiencing", it found.

Young carers are another group in need of better support. Effective practice in identifying their needs is developing slowly, as it requires schools to be aware that a young people is providing care to another family member, says the report.

"Emerging good practice in promoting partnership working and a shared sense of responsibility to better meet the needs of young carers is being driven by the voluntary sector," it adds.

Young people with significant mental health difficulties may also be missing out in both mainstream and special schools, it suggests. "Authorities and schools reported that the lack of clear working definitions for mental health difficulties is a major factor holding back progress in that area. Schools can also be unclear about which services are available to them to access support for those with mental health difficulties."

The report continues: "There are clear signs of improved partnership working between education and health services but this does not always result in the necessary types of support being provided for young people. Often, school staff report a lack of expertise and training around mental health issues."

Schools say successful implementation of the act is being hampered by a lack of resources and trained staff, caused by local authority budget cuts. In many cases, the requirement to provide services, combined with a lack of funds, ends up creating tensions between them and pupils' families.

Sandra Mitchell is mediation manager of Resolve: ASL, the independent service which tries to mediate between local authorities and families or carers who feel their children's needs are not being met. She has seen her caseload double in the last year, with parents more aware of their rights and more willing to pursue them, while cash-strapped local authorities are becoming more open to the option of mediation to resolve a breakdown in communication.

One primary headteacher told TESS: "The essence of the act, the aspiration behind it, I can't disagree with. I don't think anyone can. But the act has come along, and nothing has changed in terms of resources. There are no additional resources, but huge expectations from parents that we will `get it right for every child'. It is causing great stress for ourselves at management level, but also for teachers in class," she said.

Greg Dempster, general secretary of the Association of Headteachers and Deputes in Scotland, said the act, though "certainly constructed with the right intensions", created "rights and expectations that schools aren't necessarily able to deliver because of resource implications or lack of staff and appropriate training or lack of access to staff from other agencies".

With most children with additional support needs now at mainstream schools, parents, headteachers and experts from the voluntary sector all agree that improving training for all teachers, especially support staff, is essential if these children's needs are to be met.

Over 2,000 parents, young people, teachers and other professionals have supported a campaign by the charity Enable Scotland, calling for mandatory training, not just in general topics surrounding additional support needs, inclusion and equalities, but also in the specific areas of behavioural management and communication strategies and awareness of learning disabilities and autism.

Professor Rouse agrees that all teachers should receive training and support in dealing with children with additional needs. "The more teachers we have who can respond to learning difficulties when they occur in the context of their own classroom, the less need we will have to provide what is `additional to or different from'," he says.

Schools should not "get to a position where a separate group of teachers who have done a course can be solely responsible for all the children who have this broad a definition of needs of support. It has to be the responsibility of every teacher", he said.

"The average age of people with additional qualifications in the area of support for learning in Scotland is well over 50. And they are not being replaced by young teachers having the same opportunities that people of my generation had." Since CPD for learning support had ceased to be a government responsibility and passed to local authorities, opportunities for teachers to take advance level qualifications in this area had reduced significantly, he said.

"One of the things we do not want is just extra adults in the schools who are not properly trained or properly supported to do this work. It is not right that one of the hardest jobs in education should be carried out by the least rigorously-recruited and the least well-trained and supported members of the workforce," added Professor Rouse.

Partnership working could also be improved, says Greg Dempster. "While a school may feel it is unable to support a particular child with some sort of difficulty or need for support, another agency might not feel the situation has come to the point where the child should be coming to it for support," he adds. "Obviously, that creates an expectation at the outset from parents and a tension between the different partners working together and trying to support the child."

A primary head added: "We are usually the ones who have to take the lead, and it is really hard to get everyone around the table to meet. And if that happens it's great, but then the expectation for me is that these agencies will support and help, but what often happens is that they observe and give us more direction."

Even when the system is negotiated successfully and programmes are well run, this does not always benefit the children. Professor Rouse says setting up separate systems within local authorities and schools to support some children could reinforce the problems they are there to address.

"It is the classic dilemma of difference - if you mark some people out as different in order to help them, sometimes in helping them you can make the problem worse," he says. "Instead, teachers and policymakers should aim to improve what is "generally available to all children" to create ways to support children which do not "mark them out as different".


98,523 - Pupils in local authority primary, secondary and special schools and grant-aided schools identified as having additional support needs.

15 - Percentage of pupils identified as having additional support needs.

43 - Percentage of these pupils who have an Individualised Educational Programme.

0.53 - Percentage of pupils in local authority schools who have a Coordinated Support Plan.

2.7% - School attendance of children with additional support needs lower than other pupils.

4x - How much more likely children with additional support needs are to be excluded from school.

Source: Scottish government


William Rutherglen from Cathcart in Glasgow says that for his family, the experience of seeking support for his 11-year-old son John (pictured), who was born profoundly deaf, and diagnosed with autism at the age of three, has overall been a positive one.

The ASL act has provided the framework for John's progress, says Mr Rutherglen, and his Coordinated Support Plan, Individual Educational Programme and care plan are the "glue that holds it together". The investment of the schools and agencies involved has been rewarded in the "distance he has travelled so far".

The family received great support from Kirkriggs Special School in Glasgow, which John attended until P3. When his parents and the school agreed they could no longer meet his very specific needs - created by the combination of his deafness and his autism - it was the headteacher who first suggested Donaldson's School in Linlithgow, which specialises in teaching children with language and communication difficulties as well as hearing impairment.

"The school placement has been a life-changer," says Mr Rutherglen. "Donaldson's School's open and honest sharing of the good, the bad and the downright mysterious allows us to learn from each other and to plan and apply common strategies."

The school has also been able to support John in learning to communicate better. "This has removed many of his everyday frustrations and he is calmer, happier and more engaged as a result. He can learn and develop into someone who can go on and make his own mark in the world."

One concern remains, however. Mr Rutherglen says he and his wife had to put in a lot of hard work to support John's education, and he is "conscious that there is almost a greater variability in parents' and carers' ability to work their way through the system than there is in what the system is delivering" - potentially leaving some parents unable to achieve the same result.


James Wylie, headteacher of Kirn Primary in Dunoon says the introduction of the act brought additional support needs to the fore.

He and his staff had always been passionate about meeting the needs of all their pupils but the act had made them "tighten up" their work, he finds.

Staff started monitoring children as soon as they came into the school, according to Mr Wylie. "If you have got a child who is being disruptive in the class, there is a reason for it. These children should be getting assessed.

"My parents come with expectations, but more often than not we have met them because of the programmes we have in place."

He acknowledges things may be different elsewhere: "I have a very different catchment area from some. I might have been in a different situation when I was living in Linlithgow, where there was a much higher demand for additional support. We are going to the parents saying: `These are the assessments and this is what is going to happen as a result of it'."

The school's ability to meet the differing needs of its pupils is largely down to its ethos and very proactive staff, he says. Its support assistants have become "leading in their field".

One support assistant at the school, in close cooperation with the occupational therapist, runs a group for children who struggle with their motor skills. Children attend sessions two or three times a week, and it has had a profound effect.

Another support assistant, who works closely with an educational psychologist, runs a daily breakfast club for children from difficult backgrounds and those displaying social and emotional difficulties.

"We have been lucky here, because we have used very creative approaches and the council has continued to support, almost matching year on year our allocation of funds." He acknowledges that had he faced significant cuts and a reduction in staffing, meeting needs in the way the school does now would have been more difficult.

The school has also chosen to provide a number of programmes for all its pupils which other schools offer as part of additional support. These include a dyslexia spelling scheme, a peer-reading programme and outdoor learning. This means it can provide support for children who need it without singling them out, and other children also benefit.

Original headline: Need additional support for learning? Put your hands up

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