‘We can wave goodbye to narrowed attainment gap’

10th August 2018 at 00:00
The support staff squeeze is laid bare as union warns that a key SNP pledge is under threat. By Henry Hepburn

It is the unreported, granular detail that takes one aback in new statistics on school support staff. The series of spreadsheets of official figures reads like a spool of binary data from a Bletchley Park codebreaking machine: 0s and 1s scattered across many of the tables.

Eighteen councils have zero behaviour support staff in their schools, for example; 18 have zero school nurses “or other medical” staff; and 13 have zero home-school link workers – although two authorities do have centrally employed nurses or similar and six have centrally employed home-school link workers. The figures chime with the view often expressed to Tes Scotland that such specialist support is increasingly rare.

Warnings have also been made that some of Scottish education’s proud intentions – such as the drive to close the attainment gap between rich and poor, and to lower school exclusion rates – will prove impossible to achieve unless the overall number of support staff grows substantially from the levels recorded in official figures.

Those concerns are backed up a Tes Scotland Twitter poll, with less than one in 10 education professionals saying that their school had enough support staff.

A dearth of skilled support staff can have a profound effect on a child’s life, but tightening local budgets are making it ever harder for councils to support the growing number of children with additional support needs (ASN).

Eileen Prior, executive director of Connect (formerly the Scottish Parent Teacher Council), says parent councils regularly report “inadequate” support for children with ASN, a shortfall that has been exacerbated by local budget cuts. And she believes the situation has big implications for school exclusions.

Prior explains: “We were shocked to see that the exclusion rate for children and young people with ASN in 2017 was nearly four times higher – at 11,500 – than exclusion rates for other children; this is unacceptable. We believe this reflects the issue of wholly inadequate additional support for these vulnerable children and young people.”

School support staff are an “underpaid, undervalued part of a school team”, according to Dougie Atkinson, professional officer for the Voice union, which represents many such workers. He says: “Without them, teacher workload would go through the roof and children’s support needs would not be met, with all the consequences that would bring.”

Unless current trends are reversed, Atkinson warns, education secretary John Swinney “can wave goodbye to any narrowing of the attainment gap, his prized policy”.

Meanwhile, the EIS teaching union states that cuts to support staff have “heaped additional pressure” on teachers.

Andrea Bradley, EIS assistant secretary with responsibility for education and equality, says: “Reductions in specialist staff have had an impact right across the curriculum. For example, cuts to numbers of school librarians run counter to the emphasis on improving levels of literacy, while reduced numbers of technicians have a damaging impact in technical and science subjects.”

‘Disproportionate’ impact on ASN

There is a sense of helplessness among many parents of children with ASN. Joanna Murphy, chair of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, argues that local cuts are affecting such families “disproportionately harshly”.

She adds: “These children still need support and there are fewer members of staff spread more thinly, as the presumption to [provide] mainstream [schooling] is the norm.

“Staff are undertrained and ill-equipped to deal with the sheer number of pupils needing help. This is coupled with a lack of physical support, including specialist equipment and school transport. Parents know that local authority purses are empty, but don’t know what they can do.”

Headteachers, meanwhile, have identified a triple whammy of issues, as support for children with ASN becomes stretched. Jim Thewliss, general secretary of School Leaders Scotland, which represents secondary heads, explains that, as the number of children with ASN grows, pressure increases not only on school-based support staff but also on specialist services that assist young people and help teachers find ways to include them “in as full a learning experience as is possible”.

Swinney says that new statistics, released last week, show that more than 13,000 pupil-support assistants were employed in Scotland in 2017. He adds: “While this figure is not comparable with the total for last year of around 12,000, we are determined that all children and young people get the support they need to reach their full potential.

“Children and young people should learn in the environment that best suits their needs, whether in a mainstream or special school setting, and 95 per cent of children with ASN are now educated in mainstream schools.”

He adds: “All teachers provide support to pupils, not just ‘support for learning’ teachers. The total number of staff involved in helping pupils [with ASN], whether teachers or support staff, is now 16,600.

“We are committed to maintaining teacher numbers nationally, with the right skills in the right places, and the latest data shows teacher numbers increased in 2017 to 51,513.”

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