The impact of a young person's peer group is often overlooked yet may help schools become more inclusive, the fourth education conversation hosted by The TES Scotland heard. If tapped into more, peer group support would be a useful tool for both children and teachers, participants agreed.
Mike Gibson, head of the additional support needs division in the Scottish Executive Education Department, told the seminar that the influence of the peer group was something everyone needed to "take away and reflect upon".
Mr Gibson said: "I always knew about peer group support, but this conversation has raised its importance for me to a new level."
In a discussion ranging from implementation of the Additional Support for Learning Act to broader issues of including children with additional support needs, there was wide consensus that mainstreaming was the right way to go. But there was also recognition that inclusion need not always mean that children must be in a mainstream school.
Christine Carlton, who uses a wheelchair as a voluntary worker with the Temple Shafton youth project in Glasgow, spoke warmly of the peer support in special schools. "It's more difficult in mainstream schools because most people in a mainstream school have not been brought up in an environment with wheelchair users, so they don't know how to act with people in wheelchairs," she said. "They don't know if they will take offence; they don't know if they are independent or not."
She added: "If people were educated from a lot younger, it would probably be better for them."
Ms Carlton described how, in her youth project work, she discussed with primary-age children the issues she faced and gave them a chance to sit in her chair and see what it was like having the use only of their hands.
Clive Fairweather, former chief inspector of prisons and an adviser to the Airborne Initiative (which tried to provide an alternative route for young offenders), described how his son had been sent to a special school because of disruptive behaviour.
Teachers in mainstream schools had struggled to deal with his son's behaviour and to understand his problems, Mr Fairweather said. "I don't blame them for that - we didn't know about Asperger's syndrome, autism and dyspraxia then. We were all on a learning curve.
It was a huge relief when he finally went to a special school. More of the staff knew how to tackle the problem, but the pupils also helped each other and the mixture of the two helped him progress back towards mainstream."
He identified as key priorities early identification and intervention, and giving staff in both mainstream and specialist environments the training and tools to understand the problems.
Wilma Murphy, principal teacher of support for learning at Smithycroft Secondary in Glasgow, described how one pupil with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) had been taking time to settle in his S1 class. Her strategy was to arrange for an educational psychologist to discuss with the rest of the class (while the boy was not present) what the condition was and how it was likely to affect the boy and them.
After discussion, 14 pupils volunteered to form a "circle of friends". They meet to discuss how well the boy is doing in following a set of rules that they have drawn up together, and talk about how they can help him if he has difficulties.
"That is peer support - for the class to be able to help each other is terrific," Ms Murphy said.
John Mulgrew, director of education for East Ayrshire, and Mary Mimnagh, headteacher of Newhills School in Glasgow (for secondary age children with complex learning difficulties), both made the point that there needed to be more interaction - between teaching and other disciplines such as social work and community education, as well as between the special needs and mainstream sectors. They believed that this process should start at the stage of initial teacher education.
Brian Boyd of Strathclyde University's education department said that universities were culpable in not having teachers, community education and social workers, and speech therapists working together. The reasons were timetabling and other demands, but it should be made an early priority.
"In teaching, we need to produce teachers - not primary and secondary teachers, but teachers who can then specialise", Professor Boyd said.
The seminar, like the others in the series, focused on the Scottish Executive's Ambitious, Excellent Schools blueprint and was based on the fourth of its priorities - "support for learning for young people in challenging circumstances".
An edited transcript of the exchanges will appear in The TES Scotland on January 20.