The sign of a strong education system is one where every pupil gets the right support. Good education meets each young person's needs and not just those of the class as a whole. On Wednesday, Holyrood’s Education and Skills Committee held a roundtable discussion on pupils with Additional Support Needs and what we heard left us in no doubt – Scotland is not giving every pupil the support they need and deserve.
In fact, the evidence presented to the committee was pretty damning: support that was previously available to pupils with additional needs has been cut, teachers are not receiving adequate training on how to assist all pupils, and school resources are stretched to breaking point. One teacher told us that a staff member was directed to watch ‘The Big Bang Theory’ to learn how to help a pupil with Asperger’s Syndrome.
A recent survey by Enable Scotland found that 70% of pupils with a learning disability do not feel that they get enough support from their teachers. This is not the fault of dedicated, hard-working teachers. They simply aren’t being given the resources and training they need to do the job.
The number of pupils identified with additional support needs has increased dramatically in the last few years, while the number of specialist teachers and support staff have been cut. Two and a half times as many pupils have an identified additional support need now than in 2010, totalling one in four of the total school population. This increase is largely down to a broader definition of ASN, including mental health issues, English as a second language, family bereavement.
Yet despite these advances in how we understand additional support needs, one in seven ASN teachers has gone since 2010, as well as one in ten ASN support staff. The Scottish Greens have estimated that it will cost over £32 million just to return staffing levels back to their 2010 levels before we even begin to address the recently identified increase in demand.
The Scottish Government has not grasped this problem. Their goal on closing the attainment gap, which has my full support, cannot be achieved without properly addressing additional support needs. For example, the Pupil Equity Fund targets new funding towards children receiving free school meals. While we need to tackle the gap between the most and least deprived young people, that’s not the only inequality, nor the only way to measure it.
Some recent government plans may even make the situation worse. Their proposal to fast-track teacher training by allowing certain teaching qualifications to be combined with the one-year probation period for new teachers will mean even less time for training on supporting pupils with additional support needs.
The Scottish Greens want to see all pupils receive the right support and I doubt we’re the only ones. Schools need more investment and teachers need better training and support. In November 2016, we led a debate in Holyrood, drawing attention to additional support needs in our schools. We called on the Scottish Government to bring forward a budget which would reverse the cuts to ASN teachers and support staff since 2010.
When the government initially planned huge cuts to councils, who control education budgets, the Greens negotiated an extra £160 million funding for councils in exchange for our support. This was the biggest budget concession in Holyrood’s history. These funds will help offset the austerity that local councils have experienced over the last six years and prevent some planned devastating cuts to ASN provision. Of course, more money is needed to fully undo the years of austerity already experienced by councils. I will continue to put pressure on the Government to use what powers we have to make the resources available that our schools so desperately need.
It is not just about the money going into education though. As one in four pupils now have an identified additional support need, we need to make sure that all teachers have adequate training on how to support them. Nicola Sturgeon was at least right to say that it’s not just about ASN teachers in response to Patrick Harvie’s question to the First Minister this week. Every teacher will have pupils with ASN and while specialists are essential, the right training for all teachers is as well, at the start of and throughout their careers. Right now, we hear too many stories from teachers who are overworked and unable to access additional training, even where it does exist.
The First Minister has asked to be judged by her record on education. The Greens stand ready to help improve the situation. Let's use Holyrood’s powers to ensure better staff training, workload reduction and more resources in every school, so that every pupil gets the right support.
This article first appeared in The National.