The Scottish government announced last week that teenagers in Scotland now have the right to ask for support and participate in meetings about additional support needs (ASN). Ministers claim that Scottish children now have the most rights in Europe when it comes to their entitlement to ask for support in school. But what do the changes really mean in a system where the majority of children with a learning disability report that they lack support in the classroom?
What are the changes?
Amendments to Scotland’s Additional Support for Learning Act 2004 came into force last week, extending rights to children aged 12-15 that were previously only available to their parents or carers. Now, when children reach their 12th birthday, they will have the right to:
- ask their school or local authority to find out if they need extra support;
- have a say in plans made about the support they may receive;
- get advocacy to ensure their views are shared and taken into account and receive legal representation at tribunals;
- be actively involved in resolving disagreements about their support.
What has the reaction been?
The move has been welcomed by children’s organisations but usually with a caveat – there needs to be investment if the new rights are to be realised. Enable Scotland, the charity for people with learning disabilities – which carried out research last year showing that 52% of pupils who had a learning disability felt they lacked support in school – says it was an “ambitious change” but had to be “effectively resourced”. It also calls for extra support for education professionals – a demand echoed by the EIS teaching union, whose general secretary, Larry Flanagan, says that pupils would need support from “sufficient staff with the requisite time and skills”. “There will need to be investment of time and resources, and consideration of workload implications,” he says.
One parent of a child with ASN commented on Twitter that “it is not the rights that are required, it is resources. Year on year, the ability to provide support has got harder and harder.” On the issue of resources, one teacher wrote: “Children already have entitlements that are not met in our schools.”
What’s the evidence on how well children with additional needs are faring just now?
The signs are not good. The Scottish Parliament’s Education and Skills Committee undertook an ASN inquiry last year, concluding that “the policy to include is having the opposite effect in some circumstances due to a lack of resources”. It found that resources were “not currently sufficient” to support those with ASN in mainstream schools, and highlighted the reduction in the number of specialist staff in classrooms. Around a quarter of all pupils in Scottish schools now have ASN – in 2003, the figure was fewer than one in 20.
Professor Sheila Riddell, director of the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity, summed up the situation, telling the committee: “Saying a child has additional support needs certainly doesn’t mean that child is getting additional support.”
In reality, who will benefit?
Flanagan points out that it had long been good practice to include children in meetings about decisions that involve them. However, Children in Scotland (CIS) says that the new rights could be helpful for children whose parents are not always able to act on their behalf, such as looked-after children and young carers, and that the change would encourage teachers to reflect on whether they involve children with ASN in decisions that directly affect them.
What about those children who do not have the cognitive ability or maturity to exercise these rights?
Children in Scotland says there are measures to protect young people who do not have the capacity to make decisions or for whom making use of their rights would impact on their wellbeing. Cat Thomson of Enquire, Scotland’s advice service for additional support for learning that is run by CIS, says: “Safeguards have been put in place to protect these children and we hope that these will be carried out by professionals who really know the child well, in line with the new guidance on this.”
How else will pupils be supported?
Support service My Rights, My Say, launched with the changes, will provide advice, advocacy support (for children to prepare for and understand the consequences of their own and their parents’ use of rights), legal representation for tribunals and a service that seeks children’s views to inform decision-making.