Cast adrift in a sea of needs?

30th January 2004 at 00:00
David Henderson highlights the concerns of staff at St John's High, Dundee, about the impact of the Additional Support for Learning Bill

Lynda Scott and Jenny Quinn are experienced principal teachers who have traditionally seen problems begin to emerge among third-year pupils. Now the behaviour of younger pupils in S1 and S2 is causing difficulties.

St John's High in Dundee is not alone. Last week colleagues across the city confirmed the trend. Behaviour that would not have been tolerated a few years ago is becoming standard as pupils with social, emotional and behavioural difficulties are included in the new national framework for attracting extra support.

Mrs Scott, head of support for learning, said: "These children do things that hitherto S1 would never have dreamt of and we know from primary friends that this is a growing trend and a feature of society that is impacting on schools. It is not going to get any better.

"We are a bit like toothless tigers and have no sanctions that the pupils respect."

Mrs Quinn, acting head of special educational needs, says that parent support is vital to resolving difficulties but it may not always be there when many children come from unstable families.

At national level, ministers and local authorities continue to be at odds over the numbers likely to be included in a wider system of needs and in predicting how budgets will be affected. Records of need will be replaced by co-ordinated support plans (CSPs) for the most complex and enduring cases and thousands more children will receive extra help.

George Haggarty, the school's headteacher, who gave evidence to MSPs on the Additional Support for Learning Bill, says the focus should be on a broad spectrum of need. "It hinges on the simple point that you should not need a formal CSP in order to get the level of support you need."

As many as 130 pupils out of a roll of 900 (around 15 per cent) have some form of additional support needs, although only 34 have records of need.

Around 60 have individualised educational programmes and many others are at the first two stages of the city's five-stage support ladder.

To underline the difficulties, 5-10 per cent of the school's pupils will be at level B in the 5-14 programme, far behind their peers. As a Roman Catholic comprehensive with a wide catchment area, it will not be alone, Mr Haggarty says.

Mrs Scott believes the transition from primary is crucial and more pupils are failing to cope. "These are vulnerable youngsters operating at level A and B who do not have a record but who are not coping. They have coped probably in primary because they are well known but move them into secondary where they are moving around, they are really struggling."

More of them could yet fall into the new umbrella of support envisaged by ministers.

Needs can develop at any age. Mr Haggarty points to a boy in the middle years who has recently been diagnosed as having Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) following problems through his primary years.

Other children can suddenly develop problems because of family traumas or mental health difficulties.

So how will the new legislation affect them? Not sure is the early assessment but all three senior staff acknowledge that it is the parents' response that will matter as numbers increase in all categories. If parents believe only those with a support plan will gain extra resources, the new system could replicate the old.

"Most parents," Mrs Scott says, "especially when their kids are young, will push like they have pushed for the records because they want the best for their child."

St John's is already offering a range of curriculum options for pupils who cannot cope and regularly involves outside agencies. But occupational therapists are difficult to find and speech therapists are even rarer.

Teachers, as elsewhere, find relationships with social workers difficult to sustain because of frequent staff changes.

"I do not have the view yet that this is some sort of major sea change because we have been building towards it and it may confirm best practice.

But we do not want a system that is unrealistic in terms of what is required of schools," Mr Haggarty says.

A fundamental concern is the extent to which schools will be held accountable if they fail to meet objectives in the support plans. Teachers will be on the defensive if they are.

"It's about trust between parents and schools and we have to avoid a minefield of difficulties," Mr Haggarty says.

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