`We are creating a lost generation of ASN'

31st October 2014 at 00:00
Further cuts will hit vulnerable pupils the hardest, experts say

Drastic education cuts will create a "lost generation" of children with additional needs and put many support staff jobs at risk, MSPs have been warned.

The draft Scottish budget for 2015-16 confirms fears that the worst cuts are yet to come, according to evidence submitted to the Scottish Parliament's Education and Culture Committee.

A range of organisations responded to an investigation into the impact of funding changes on education services. Bodies representing both children and school staff said that the fat in council budgets had already been trimmed, leaving authorities facing difficult choices.

With teacher numbers currently protected, support staff are increasingly likely to face the axe - which will have a disproportionate effect on children with additional support needs.

Changes in legislation and improved identification of additional needs mean that ASN pupils now account for nearly a fifth of all students in mainstream schools. Pupil-teacher ratios have fallen as this number has increased.

Education authorities have extended some protection to these students during the economic downturn. But John Stodter, general secretary of education directors' organisation ADES, said that discretionary services such as support assistants, study support and breakfast clubs were now being scaled back.

"None of these decisions are taken lightly, nor are they desirable, but there are no easy reductions that can be made in most council education services - these have already been implemented," he said in the organisation's response to the parliamentary committee.

The Scottish Children's Services Coalition (SCSC), meanwhile, said that vulnerable children were losing vital support.

"We are creating a lost generation of those with ASN, whose cost to society in the longer term will be far greater than what any increase in adequate support would be," the organisation's submission states.

"Schools already cannot cope with this strain, which only stands to get worse as improved diagnosis of ASN, especially autism spectrum disorders, increases, along with the survival rates of children with life-limiting conditions."

The coalition argued that the situation was "a long way off" the Scottish government's commitment to give every child the best start in life, and that the draft budget ignored existing pressures on ASN.

Public services union Unison shared figures from 2014 with the committee showing a steep rise in the number of assaults on employees. Non-teaching school staff are among the most vulnerable, with 4,845 assaults on these staff members reported in the past year - although the union believes that this is "the tip of the iceberg".

Unison said that despite an Audit Scotland report in June showing that school expenditure had fallen by 5 per cent in the three years up to 2012-13, "the worst is yet to come" in terms of job cuts. Reductions in the number of classroom assistants and clerical staff would heap work on to teachers, leaving them less able to meet children's needs, the union added.

ASN pupils in mainstream schools numbered 69,587 in 2010 but 131,621 in 2013. According to Unison, children with complex medical and care needs are being taught in schools without trained staff, and statutory obligations around ASN children are at risk of not being met.

The union's Scottish secretary, Mike Kirkby, said: "Our members have real concerns for the safety of some children in our schools. The same issues are increasingly arising in nurseries."

Education union Voice told MSPs that the lack of financial support was leading to the "stripping out" of support services. Professional officer Dougie Atkinson said: "Many schools are driven by the demands of mainstream pupils and are compromising the experience of pupils with support needs."

The EIS teaching union said that, although it supported mainstreaming of ASN pupils in principle, "achieving this aim is possible only where the additional support resource is provided.and this is not happening". Special schools seemed to be "disproportionately squeezed in order to meet financial pressures", it added.

A Scottish government spokesman said: "Recent evidence provided to the Scottish Parliament from ministers demonstrated that the needs of most children and young people with additional support needs in most schools in Scotland were being met well, with some major strengths."

He added that a government report from April this year (bit.lyASNreport) highlighted increases in attendance, reduced exclusions and improvements in the numbers of ASN pupils going on to higher education. The Additional Support for Learning Act also placed a duty on education authorities to identify, provide for and review pupils' specific needs, he said.

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