Scotland risks creating a "lost generation" of young people unless it takes urgent action over the rapid rise in children identified as having additional support needs (ASN), the Scottish Children's Services Coalition (SCSC) has warned.
The umbrella group has called on Scottish government ministers to intervene after new figures showed that the number of children registered with ASN had almost doubled in three years.
The SCSC fears that teachers and other education staff do not have the time and resources to give all ASN children the help they need, and has written to Aileen Campbell, the minister for children and young people, to request an urgent meeting. Leading figures from the charities Mindroom, Spark of Genius and Who Cares? Scotland, as well as children's homes operator Young Foundations and Falkland House School, have added their signatures to the letter.
The SCSC told TESS that none of Scotland's 32 local authorities provided mandatory training for teachers and support staff specifically on learning disabilities and autism, and that mandatory training with a more general approach to ASN and equality was provided by only five of them.
In its letter to the minister, the SCSC warns that unless teachers receive more support, "we face a lost generation of young people whose cost to society will far outweigh any potential savings created through cuts".
The letter goes on to state that "a dramatic increase in those with ASN has created an epidemic and led to increased pressure on teachers and other professionals in education dealing with those in this category". It further stresses that the increase has come at a time of "stringent" local authority cuts and a slight drop in overall teacher numbers.
National statistics released last month showed that 131,621 students were registered as having ASN in 2013, up from 69,587 in 2010. The proportion of ASN students in Scotland's school population went from 10 per cent to 19 per cent over the same period.
According to the SCSC, this was "not a real increase" but the result of improvements in recording processes and changes to categorisation. Nevertheless, the body said, a range of "challenging" statutory obligations had to be met each time a child was identified as having ASN.
Other official figures show that the exclusion rate per 1,000 for students with ASN is more than four times higher than for other students - 89 per 1,000 compared with 20 per 1,000.
Claudia Beamish, Labour MSP for South Scotland and a former primary teacher for ASN children in South Lanarkshire, is due to address the Scottish Parliament next Wednesday with questions about the growing numbers of ASN students.
She said that although the increase in children identified as having ASN suggested a welcome improvement in schools' ability to recognise young people's needs, the SCSC's warnings should act as a "wake-up call" to the government.
Children were being "let down by the Scottish government's failure to react to ensure that schools can provide proper support", she added, with ASN children not always getting the one-to-one support they needed.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman Liam McArthur has also submitted questions to Parliament about the ASN figures. "There must be a serious question as to whether or not there is the capacity in our schools to meet the needs of these children and young people," he said.
A Scottish government spokesman said the fact that attendance figures for students with ASN had increased slightly in 2013 was a positive sign. However, he acknowledged that "we need to recognise that more needs to be done to improve those rates wherever possible".
He added that the government was due to publish a report in February on the implementation of additional support for learning legislation, and that the Advisory Group for Additional Support for Learning would "continue to consider ways to deliver additional support for learning and how to remove barriers to this".