Let me open this debate with a recognition of and agreement with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which in 2012 stated unequivocally that the principle of inclusion is one of the great strengths of Scottish education. Let me also say that the Scottish Conservatives believe that the presumption to mainstream is part of that inclusive approach and that, for the majority of young people in Scottish schools and their teachers, it has brought rich reward in pupils’ educational and social experiences.
Participation in school is not just about what goes on in the classroom and there are powerful arguments on why a young person’s presence in mainstream provision can be an enriching experience, through the development of friendships, the development of wider skills and participation in extra-curricular activity.
However, “inclusion” must never be taken to mean exactly the same thing as “mainstreaming”. A young person who attends a special school, in some cases away from home, might find him or herself in a very inclusive setting, in which they are much better able to achieve their potential than they would have been in a mainstream school.
The reverse is true, too. As the Education and Skills Committee said in its 2017 report, “How is Additional Support for Learning working in practice?” there are many young people in mainstream schools who do not feel particularly well included. We need to be very careful about the language that we employ.
There is no denying that for a growing number of young people mainstream schooling is not appropriate, because it is not delivering what is best for their educational and social needs. The Scottish Government itself acknowledged that when it commissioned the Doran review. The review report, which was published in 2012, was critical of the standard of education for some young people with additional support needs, mainly because of a lack of training for teachers that enabled them to understand and cater for the needs of young people who required additional support.
One of the great successes of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2009 was the significant improvement in the identification of additional support needs pupils. Thanks to that better identification, the number of ASN young people has doubled since 2011. However, the number of special schools has declined—by 31 per cent since 2008—and the number of specialist teachers, including psychologists and psychiatrists, has declined by 9 per cent.
Twenty-four per cent of all primary school-age children are now identified as having some form of additional support need, and the rate for secondary school-age children is 29 per cent. Although the majority of those young people can flourish in mainstream schools, for a significant minority that is not the case. Sixty per cent of teachers tell us that young people are frequently being educated in mainstream schools when alternative provision would meet their educational needs much better.
In other words, we have seen a significant rise in demand for specialist education but, as things stand, that demand cannot be fully met. On these benches, we believe that that is one of the greatest challenges that we face in Scottish education, one which is very high on the list of teachers’ present concerns in both primary and secondary sectors, and about which many parents and charitable foundations are deeply concerned. It is for exactly those reasons that we wanted this debate. It is vital to pay attention to what teachers are saying. Many are very clear that in some ways the current situation is inhibiting their ability to deliver top-quality teaching and pastoral care, not only to many young people with additional support needs, but also to many other young people who are in classes in which, despite the best intentions of the teacher, they are not receiving the same amount of teaching time as before. In some cases, there is the accompanying discipline issue, which parents, teachers and young people naturally find a huge worry.
That was partly why the Education and Skills Committee report of 2017 made it clear that there are many young people who feel more excluded in mainstream schooling than they would do in special school, which of course runs slightly counter to what the 2009 act actually said. However, we should not forget that the first quasi-legal criterion that permits exemption from mainstream schooling is that
“it would not be suited to the ability or aptitude of the child”.
What do we have to do? Let us be very aware that the current financial circumstances make it extremely difficult to find new additional resources. I am sure that we can all agree that it would be nice to add perhaps another 1,000 specialist teachers to the workforce, but we have to accept that for the time being that is not practical. Local authority budgets are so tight, and we know that the Scottish National Party cuts to teacher numbers over many years have included a number of classroom assistants who were previously assisting with the support of our most vulnerable children.
Let us also be clear that there are already some additional resources within the system. The cabinet secretary admitted just two weeks ago at the Education and Skills Committee that there is an underspend on the attainment fund, with money sitting waiting for schools to use it. We know from the early experience of pupil equity funding, which all of us across this chamber support, that many headteachers are keen to do more if they can employ additional teachers in that area.
We know that there are special schools and some specialist units that have available places. For example, we know that in Edinburgh, the Royal Blind school and Donaldson’s school feel that their specialist resources are underused, and I have knowledge of another couple of special schools that would be able to take more young people.
I want to say something about the importance of ensuring maximum access to staff who have expertise in ASN work. In doing so, I pick up a comment from the “Residential Child Care Qualification” report of 2012, in which the importance of professional qualifications was discussed. Those are all very important in terms of ensuring that there is additional quality within staffing. There was widespread recognition of the need for a qualification-based profession, but there is also real concern that the narrow focus on the level 9 degree award is putting in place restrictions that are, first, causing some potentially excellent recruits to the profession to be excluded and, secondly, placing considerable financial burdens on retraining existing staff. That issue has arisen in nursery and child care provision, but it is also an issue in some of the smaller specialist schools and it is threatening the viability of some of those institutions.
The approach of local authorities is key to the debate. It is easy to understand why, as a result of financial pressures, they are reluctant to place a young person in a special school, even if they believe that that young person would benefit hugely from being there. I and every member in this chamber can certainly cite several examples from casework in which a local authority has sought to continue to mainstream a young person when the parents and specialist professionals have advised otherwise. Specialist care means the provision of specialist services, and if it is not always possible to ensure that those can be provided in every single local authority, then we must ensure that there are accessible facilities elsewhere.
Part of the equation is teacher training. It is not that long ago since the Education and Skills Committee took evidence from trainee and probationer teachers and we got exactly the same message, that much more has to be done in teacher training courses to assist all teachers to better understand their responsibilities when it comes to young people and their special needs. I hope that the General Teaching Council for Scotland and the teacher training schools can be helpful in that regard.
No one pretends that this is easy, but we do not believe that the current situation can continue if we are to serve the best interests of every child.
That the Parliament notes the comments made by the OECD that inclusion is one of the key strengths of the Scottish education system; believes that the presumption to mainstream pupils has laudable intentions and that it works well for the majority of young people in Scotland's schools; recognises however the very considerable concern that has been expressed by many teachers, teaching assistants, children’s charities and parent’s groups that a growing number of young people with special educational needs are not being well served by being placed in inclusive mainstream education; believes that this is putting additional pressures on teachers and young people in classrooms across Scotland, making it more difficult to support the individual needs of each child, and, in light of the recent evidence presented to Parliament, calls on the Scottish Government to work with local government partners to review the presumption to mainstream policy to ensure there can be more effective uptake of the provision of places in special schools and specialist units and utilisation of specialist staff.
I recognise that this welcome debate allows the Government to reaffirm—I am glad to hear this reaffirmed by the Conservative Party—that all children and young people must receive the support that they need to enable them to achieve their full potential.
We are clear that all children and young people should learn in the environment that best suits their needs, whether that is in a mainstream or special school setting. The judgment about what is an appropriate learning environment for each individual should be taken based on their needs and circumstances, and that is the foundation of statute in this area.
This Government’s defining mission is delivering excellence and equity in Scottish education. Equity for all can be achieved only through an inclusive education system. Scotland’s inclusive approach celebrates diversity and allows children and young people to develop an understanding and recognition of differences. That contributes to the development of an increasingly inclusive, compassionate and equal society.
Our inclusive approach is recognised as a key strength of our education system. The 2007 OECD report “Reviews of National Policies for Education: Quality and Equity of Schooling in Scotland” recognised that:
“Scotland ... has one of the most equitable school systems in the OECD.”
We are clear in our expectations that all children and young people should reach their full potential in that environment. That is achieved through a framework of legislation and policy that sets the expectation of equity and excellence for all.
Our system focuses on overcoming barriers to learning, and it is that approach that makes Scotland stand out. The approach is well regarded across Europe and it has been adopted by a number of other countries.
A cornerstone of our inclusive approach is the presumption of mainstreaming for those with additional support needs. That approach is reaffirmed in my amendment. We know that significant numbers of children and young people and their families have benefited from that inclusive approach. More than 192,240 pupils are benefiting from spending some or all of their time in mainstream education. Inclusion is a fundamental aspect of Scottish education and ensures that all children and young people can recognise and appreciate diversity as part of everyday life.
Our approach recognises that a child or young person’s ability to learn effectively may be impacted in many different ways, from disability or health needs to family circumstances, the learning environment or social and emotional factors. Our focus is that children and young people should receive the support that they need, when they need it. The range of factors that may affect a young person’s ability to learn must be reflected in the educational support that is delivered for each young person based on the assessment of their needs.
We have made extensive policy and legislative changes over the past 15 years to enable those with additional support needs to thrive as part of their class, their school and their wider community. We must continue to make sure that all our children and young people feel included and can participate and achieve their full potential.
I could not agree more. I think that the Scottish Government has done quite a lot, but given that we have additional capacity in many of the special schools and units, what else can the Scottish Government do to encourage local authorities to take up those places?
Liz Smith makes a very fair point. The judgment about whether to utilise capacity in any special school environment must be driven by the assessment of the needs of a young person. By statute, that matter is for a local authority to take forward. My point is that the statutory framework is there, so the question that local authorities must wrestle with, in dialogue with families, is what the most appropriate learning environment is for an individual child.
Sometimes—Liz Smith knows that I am familiar with such situations—that can be a matter of dispute between a local authority and a family, in which the family considers that the local authority’s proposals for the child’s learning environment are not appropriate. Ultimately, there are tribunal arrangements that can reconcile some such differences, but I would encourage—as does Government policy—good, active, participative dialogue with families to try to ensure that the educational provision that is made available for young people is appropriate. In certain circumstances, that will involve a reference to a special school.
Since I became Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, I have spent quite a bit of time visiting all the special schools in Scotland to see at first hand—because of the implications of the Doran review—the precise nature and character of the services and support that they provide, and I commend them for the work that they do. However, fundamentally, judgments on what should be the appropriate educational environments for young people rest with local authorities in dialogue with families.
In Scotland we have a system that is much admired and in which there is much to be proud of. However, I would be the first to accept that no system is entirely perfect. I am very committed to ensuring that children in our education system receive the support that they need, when they need it. We have appreciated and valued the input to this discussion from the Education and Skills Committee. We will continue to work to ensure that children’s and young people’s needs are identified and met. We will also do all that we can to ensure that those who provide support directly to children and young people have the skills and knowledge to enable them to do so in the most appropriate way. That includes the importance that is attached to initial teacher education, which must reflect those challenges.
More needs to be done to advance many of those questions and to assure ourselves, within the context of reaffirming the principle of mainstreaming, that all that needs to be done is being done. We are looking to further support implementation of additional support for learning. The programme for government sets out our commitment to work with local government towards improving consistency of support across Scotland, through improved guidance, building further capacity to deliver effective additional support, and improving career pathways and professional development, including new training and resources for school staff on inclusive practices.
I am very pleased to consider a review of the implementation of additional support for learning, including where children learn. If we take a collaborative approach and work with local authorities and the third sector, I believe that we can create a Scotland in which our education system can match up to our aspirations and ensure—
I know that the commitment to inclusive education is shared across the chamber. We must improve experiences for all and ensure that we are getting it right for every child. I hope that the next steps that I have set out today will help to take us further on our journey—
—towards delivering inclusive education in practice for all children and young people in Scotland.
I move amendment S5M-15607.2, to insert at end:
“; agrees that this review should be founded on a continuing commitment to a presumption to mainstream and on the need to ensure that children and young people’s additional support needs are met, to enable them to reach their full potential, from within whichever learning provision best suits their learning needs, and notes the forthcoming publication of revised guidance, tools and advice for school staff, and national research, on the experiences of children and young people with additional support needs."
I have previously explained to the chamber that I am committed to the presumption of mainstreaming through not just ideology but experience. Many years ago, when I taught in Gracemount high school, it was co-located with what was then Kaimes school for the visually impaired. The purpose of that was to ensure that Kaimes students could spend a significant part of their school week in mainstream classes in the high school. It worked extremely well. We had small, practical class sizes of around 12 to 14 students, perhaps two of whom were from Kaimes school, often with specialist support from there. That set-up worked extremely well and was very inclusive. Therefore, I have seen mainstreaming work.
Unfortunately, however, I have also seen it fail. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, budgetary pressure began to bite. Then we found ourselves with full classes of more than 20 students for science, with perhaps four or five students from Kaimes school but no additional support teacher with them. They did not get the education that they were entitled to. In essence, they were parked at the back of the class and—I admit it—ignored.
Children being educated in their local school is very much the right policy for them and their educational experience, for parents and for other children in the school, whose educational experience is enriched. As the cabinet secretary said, it is also the right policy for society in building a compassionate, fair and equitable society. However, without resources and specialist expertise—as Liz Smith said, that sometimes means specialist provision—it is not really a policy at all. In fact, it is rather a con or a fraud on those children and their parents, as the approach was for children who came from across the Lothians to attend Kaimes school and went to Gracemount high school, where they did not receive the support that they were entitled to.
We have the policy of a presumption to mainstream, but the question is, do we have the resources? It is clear that the answer to that question is that we do not. Year-on-year cuts to local government have taken their toll, as Liz Smith said. As she also pointed out, since 2012, we have seen a 68 per cent increase in the number of pupils being identified as having additional support needs and 500 fewer trained ASN teachers over the same period.
Mainstreaming can still be great. Only a week or so ago, I visited the Royal Blind school to talk about the gloriously named ELVIS—the East Lothian vision impairment service—whose staff work with some 56 children in mainstream education in East Lothian. That is a great scheme, but East Lothian Council is the only local authority in Scotland that uses expertise in that way. As Liz Smith suggested, there are now only 28 pupils at the Royal Blind school. There are more than 4,000 children with visual impairment across Scotland, and I simply do not believe that those pupils are all the pupils who could benefit from the expertise there.
It is not just about those with visual impairments, of course. Not very long ago, we considered “Not included, not engaged, not involved: A report on the experiences of autistic children missing school”. I know that the cabinet secretary is seriously considering that report, which talks about there being too many children with autism for whom mainstreaming turns into not a rich educational experience but, rather, a cycle of part-time schooling and informal, and then perhaps formal, exclusion. That is not good enough.
In our view, the Tory motion is not committed enough to mainstreaming. The Government’s amendment corrects that, and we will support it. However, neither says enough about the importance of resources, so we will press our amendment.
I move amendment S5M-15607.1, to leave out from “has laudable intentions” to end and insert:
“is the correct approach and that it works well for the majority of young people in Scotland’s schools; recognises the very considerable concern that has been expressed by many teachers, school support staff, children’s charities and parents organisations that a growing number of young people with special educational needs are not being well served by being placed in inclusive mainstream education without the resources and staffing required to meet their needs as a result of reductions in local authority budgets; believes that this is putting additional pressures on teachers and young people in classrooms across Scotland, making it more difficult to support the individual needs of each child, and calls on the Scottish Government, in light of the recent evidence presented to Parliament, to work with local authority partners to ensure that every child who requires additional support has their needs assessed quickly and effectively, with the requisite support provided, while additionally ensuring that there can be more effective provision of places in special schools and specialist units where that is assessed as appropriate.”
I declare an interest in that my wife heads up the support for learning in a primary school in Edinburgh and I was extensively involved in the work towards the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 and its implementation.
There is a line in the
2004 act that, for me, is one of the most elegant pieces of prose in any statute that the Parliament has passed. It says:
“A child or young person has additional support needs for the purposes of this Act where, for whatever reason, the child or young person is, or is likely to be, unable without the provision of additional support to benefit from school education”.
The catch-all intent of “for whatever reason” captures the universal and inalienable right to education.
Although that is very much the will of all members, the picture is becoming bleaker. We have 500 fewer teachers with additional support needs training than we had in 2012, and a third of parents who have a child with additional support needs have stated that their child has been unlawfully expelled. In my constituency, on a weekly basis, I come upon parents who have children with complex needs in the classroom who find that they do not receive support. In some cases, they have offered to privately fund the support and have been turned away because of a policy that does not exist: teachers say that they have too many adults in the classroom.
There is definitely a disconnect between the good will that is expressed in the policies that we have agreed and the debates that we have had in the chamber and something happening on the ground. We see that in the metrics, because there is a four-times higher exclusion rate in the additional support needs population in schools although additional support for learning attracts only about 12 per cent of the overall spend in education. There are broken lines of communication and, in some cases, siloed working.
I am reminded, in particular, of the case of the Muir family, who have given me permission to use their family name. I helped them to lodge a section 70 complaint about the fact that there had been an element of drift with regard to their child, who has autism but was not receiving the support that he needed and was very disruptive in class. Nothing was really done to help him until he had reached the age of 16, at which age the state no longer had an obligation to provide his education.
Getting support to such kids can be a problem, and it starts with identification. As we know, there are huge delays in the diagnostic process and also huge delays in things such as section 23 assessments. On diagnosis, families go back to the end of another long queue to ascertain the level of support that the local authority might be prepared to provide. There is also a huge failure in identifying hidden additional support needs, such as among looked-after young people who exhibit attachment disorder, trauma and loss. Their behaviour is often not managed as it should be. In addition, many young carers are not aware of their own additional support needs, beyond the needs of their families.
The picture is bleak. For example, 78 per cent of teachers who were surveyed by the Educational Institute of Scotland said that there is not enough ASN provision. One teacher said on a prominent education blog:
“I feel inclusion is a massive stick to beat me with. Teacher training never prepared me for this.”
That does not speak to whether the policy is right or wrong; it just says that we are not implementing it as we should do with the right resources. The concept is not wrong; universalism is important, because education is a right, regardless of capacity or communication skills. Integration is a social leveller and it can be very therapeutic, but it needs to be backed up with proper training and resources.
Like many subjects in the education portfolio, the topic of today’s debate is that of a well-intentioned policy that, again, has not been fully thought through when it comes to implementation. The presumption of mainstreaming has been a part of Scottish Government policy since the year 2000 and has become increasingly central to the ideology surrounding the teaching of children with additional support needs. The arguments in favour of mainstreaming point to the social and academic benefits for ASN children and, indeed, the positives of other children learning the importance of inclusion at an early age. However, the evidence in Scotland points to the conclusion that the policy is failing too many children.
Professor Lani Florian of the University of Edinburgh, who is an ardent supporter of mainstreaming, has said:
“We cannot ... dismiss the concerns of parents and teachers who feel that things are not working for too many children.”
The problem is that mainstreaming all children works only if there is adequate support for teachers in its delivery. In December 2018, a Scottish Government publication stated that 28.7 per cent of the school population had additional support needs. In contrast, though, between 2012 and 2016, there was a 12 per cent fall in the number of ASN staff—that situation is not sustainable. Other members have rightly highlighted the damaging effects of that for children, but it is also important to note the impact on teachers and other staff.
Teachers have written a series of letters to the Scottish Government, highlighting their concerns. One letter said that the class teacher was hit, kicked and punched, and that the support staff were repeatedly subjected to kicks to the stomach and being bitten. In
The Scotsman last February, one teacher described their colleagues as being “beyond breaking point” and said that the policy was
“increasing staff mental health problems”.
I do not think that anyone would think that that is okay. Who would want to come to work with the threat of chairs and scissors being thrown at them or of being bitten and kicked? Unfortunately, though, that is what we hear is happening in schools time and again. In many cases, a teacher’s whole day is spent focusing on the additional support needs of one or two children to the detriment of every other child in the class.
I recently asked the cabinet secretary what action he was taking to reduce teacher workload in Falkirk. His response highlighted access to “streamlined” online resources and toolkits to tackle administrative bureaucracy. However, those measures do not address the root of the problem; they simply attempt to manage the symptoms. The cabinet secretary said that it is the local authority’s responsibility to ensure that workload demands on teachers are minimised, but local authorities are having to make cuts across the board, so that will seem an impossible task.
The Education and Skills Committee recently heard evidence from the Scottish Government regarding its updated data collection methods. Those result in additional support staff no longer being counted as a distinct group, meaning that their numbers cannot so easily be identified or tracked. If we are no longer collecting the correct data, we have no method for deciphering just how bad the problem is for teachers, other staff and, ultimately, children.
The positives of mainstreaming are undeniable, but right now, for far too many children, it is not working. That is why I will be supporting the motion in the name of Liz Smith.
This is a very important debate. I thank Liz Smith for her remarks about inclusion, the presumption of mainstreaming and how important mainstreaming is for young people. She mentioned that the number of people identified as having additional support needs has increased greatly. This morning, the Education and Skills Committee heard Professor Hargreaves talk about his work in Canada—I believe that he said that the identification rate in Canada is more than 50 per cent. Therefore, it could be the case that we have more work to do. We should not be afraid of that: identifying additional support needs is about achieving the equity that the cabinet secretary spoke about.
I was not a member of the Education and Skills Committee in 2017 when it published “How is Additional Support for Learning working in practice?”. However, since joining the committee, I have come to know the priority that committee members give to ASN work, which they have embedded into all the committee’s work. Indeed, in the budget debate last week, I highlighted that the issue is one of the areas that the committee has concerns about.
I welcome the fact that Mr Gray brought in the issue of special schools. The committee visited the Royal Blind school, where we saw some moving and excellent work. I was lucky enough to meet a Pushkin prize winner who was going to university this year to study to become a writer. It is true that special schools have an important part to play, but that has to work hand in hand with ensuring that an appropriate environment is identified for every individual child. Only then will we achieve the equity that the cabinet spoke about.
Ms Harris, who is not a member of the committee, spoke about the collection of data. That is an important issue. We are in danger of conflating ASN teachers with ASN support staff, and we have to be careful about the language we use in that regard. During our committee inquiry into data and school support staff, Mick Wilson, who is acting deputy director of education analysis in the Scottish Government, said:
“We think that, at the level of detail at which we collect the data, the descriptions of ‘ASN auxiliary’ and ‘care assistant’ that we had in the past do not match with the staff that authorities have in place now. Because there was no ‘pupil support assistant’ option on the collection, some authorities were randomly allocating their pupil support assistants to one of those categories.”—[
Education and Skills Committee,
28 November 2018; c 17.]
It is not that we are not collecting the data, but that it has never been collected efficiently and in a manner that would inform us about the area. The cabinet secretary is reflecting on that. People could be filling the same roles, but those roles might have completely different job descriptions in different authorities.
From what I have heard today, the theme is that this is about partnership working, and to achieve that we will have to work closely with education authorities and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. It is another area that will need consensus from local authorities on job descriptions and titles and how they describe their support staff in schools.
I was also glad to hear from Alex Cole-Hamilton about the change in the guidance. That important piece of Government guidance sets out clearly the responsibility of councils in relation to the plans for young people and the criteria that must be considered in implementing them, to ensure that every child receives appropriate support, letting them reach their full potential, as the cabinet secretary said.
This is a short debate, and perhaps one of the upsides is that I will therefore be making a short speech. [
I will make some brief observations but, given the lack of debating time that the Scottish Government has given to education and particularly to the critical issue that we are discussing, I seek a commitment from the cabinet secretary to provide substantial debating time soon to allow the detail of the policy, its purpose and its effectiveness to be explored in more depth. I think we are all agreed on the basics, but there is a more substantial and perhaps more nuanced debate that we need to have, and we need a bit more time for that.
My starting point is a simple one. I support the presumption to mainstream as a matter of equity and fairness to young people with special educational needs, but also as something that will benefit all young people. I have been privileged to go regularly to Rosshall academy and Darnley primary school, both of which have visual impairment units, and I believe that it is of benefit to all young people to share their experience of learning. It is a means of breaking down the barriers, the divisions and the discrimination that all too many disabled people face throughout the remainder of their lives.
However, I want to be clear that making a policy commitment is not just about stating it. A policy commitment to mainstream is not a policy commitment if the appropriate resources are not made available, if the appropriate training for teaching and support staff is not in place and if meaningful support is not in place to help young people overcome not just the physical barriers that they may face, but all the barriers that present young people with huge challenges in achieving their potential. It is also not a policy commitment if there is no proper monitoring of its implementation and its impact. As has been said, we have looked in committee at the lack of information about the skills and abilities of those who support young people in our schools.
Charities, the unions, carers and parents, among others, have all produced reports that talk about mainstream places being more honoured in the breach, with pupils having part-time timetables, time spent out of class—unlike their peers—or time spent outside the headteacher’s door. At the more extreme end, there is inappropriate exclusion. In those circumstances, we are mainstreaming only in name, and I do not think that any member in the chamber would aspire to that.
It is essential that we confront something pretty basic that is going on in the system. All the evidence tells us that there is a stark lack of resource—a lack of willing the means—to make mainstreaming real in the lives of our young people, and that has consequences. I am deeply troubled that that has led not just to concerns about how best to meet the needs of young people with additional support needs but to serious questioning of the policy and a consequent danger of blaming the young people with additional support needs for being the problem. We must not allow that attitude to develop, and those who say that there are challenges need to be supported in understanding how those challenges can properly be met. We must not ignore them by saying, “Well, you don’t care about the policy.” It is essential that we are part of willing the means.
In conclusion, I want to reflect on my belief that the policy has been distorted. I recall when parents campaigned for and sought a presumption in favour of mainstream education. In a number of cases, we now see an assumption of mainstream education even when the family and those who support the child believe that to be inappropriate. That has consequences, too, such as inappropriate placements where we set up young people to fail, or reductions in the specialist places and specialisms that many young people require, so that, even if they are assessed as needing places outwith the mainstream, such places are not available.
It cannot be acceptable that, even where placements are available, local authorities are having to decide not to use them because of their cost, rather than there being an absolute, objective assessment of the child’s needs. Across the Parliament, we know that that is not acceptable.
In conclusion, we should recall why parents and others sought a presumption in favour of mainstreaming. They seek from us not warm words, but proper, effective support for young people wherever—
I welcome the debate. As I have said in previous debates in this area, back in the dark ages when I started school, my parents made the choice for me to go to mainstream school, which, in the early 70s, was perhaps not the choice made by the majority of parents in that situation.
I welcome the steps that have been taken by this Government and by previous Administrations to allow mainstreaming to become far more normal for those who have physical or learning difficulties.
The debate is important, as is the motion that we will vote on later. We need some kind of review to see where things are and how they can be improved.
A parent contacted me to tell me her story because she knew that the debate was taking place. She has a son in primary 5 in mainstream school but has requested that he is taken out because he spends 90 per cent of his time out of the classroom working independently with an adult. He does not have any friends, he feels lonely and isolated and he hates going to school. I suggest that that is an example of a time when mainstreaming has gone too far.
We are not looking at every child’s needs. Yes, the primary reason why we go to school is to learn, but there are lots of other reasons that relate to emotional and social development. If people are being excluded from the classroom or—even worse—standing alone in the playground every break time, they are missing out. That is why I welcome the suggestion to simply review whether every child is really getting the education that they should get.
I will pick up a theme outlined by Alison Harris. We have to look at the issue holistically. If a child in a classroom often disturbs other children, that does not mean that they should be excluded; it means that they need the appropriate support. However, having spoken to many teachers, I know that they are fire-fighting in the classroom and that they feel more like policemen than teachers because they have to control what is going on. There is a danger here: what is happening at the coalface, as others know from personal experience or from talking to teachers and parents, is often very different from what we express in our debates in these pleasant surroundings.
I fully accept that mainstreaming should be the preferred choice, but it should not be the choice that parents and children are forced to make because of bad decisions made by local authorities on either financial or ideological grounds.
I am grateful to the Conservatives for bringing forward the motion on the presumption to mainstream. I agree with Clare Adamson about the importance of the subject of the debate. I also agree with Johann Lamont, and my only criticism is that we are not having a fuller debate, because I know that the Education and Skills Committee has looked at the issue in great detail.
The backdrop to the policy is that there was a very different political landscape in 2004—there was consensus in Scottish education with the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004. The legislation and the language that it enshrined, which was not the language of disability, was truly groundbreaking 15 years ago.
None of us can deny that the ASL act fundamentally challenged traditional expectations of Scotland’s teachers and schools. It put pressure on local authorities to accommodate learning needs that had never been considered in the main stream. It put pressure on teachers to properly equip themselves with the training required. Fundamentally, however, it put pressure on education authorities to work to get it right for every child.
To do that properly, our schools had to start taking seriously their legal requirement to assess the needs of the children in their care. The evidence bears truth: since 2010, there has been a 153 per cent increase in the number of pupils recorded with an additional support need. Our children are more readily assessed for support, which is being done at an earlier stage in their school journey than ever before.
Conversely, since 2002, the number of pupils in special schools has fallen by 19 per cent, compared with a 4 per cent drop in the number of pupils in mainstream primary schools. Today, 97 per cent of children with an additional support need in Scotland’s schools are educated in mainstream education.
The Government’s review into the presumption to mainstream is nonetheless timely, particularly given the recent developments in Scottish education. I note that the Government is to report on the implementation of additional support for learning nationally in due course.
Classroom assistants are a vital part of the education system. They support some of our most vulnerable pupils. Last August,
The Herald reported on an overall increase in the number of classroom and support staff, from 12,992 to 13,761. That is good news, but the same article went on to consider behaviour support, and the number of such posts has reduced. As a former teacher, I think that part of the reason for that is that there has been a cultural shift in our schools away from disciplinary behaviour support bases towards enforcing positive behaviour through the use of restorative practices.
Listening to Alex Cole-Hamilton talk about his constituent reminded me of the story of a boy I once taught called Jamie. Some members might remember this story. Jamie was regularly removed from classes across the school. Every day, he would be sent to sit outside the deputy head’s classroom with a jotter, and he would doodle away to his heart’s content. During one free period, I remember sitting down with Jamie in a very public place and asking him how he was. He had been removed from his home and sent away to live with his grandparents, who lived much further away from the school. School was a salvation for him; it was the one constant in his life. When Jamie arrived in the classroom, he was promptly removed for his disruptive behaviour. I texted my former colleagues and friends ahead of today’s debate and I was delighted to hear that Jamie’s desk is no longer there.
Our teachers are professionals. Every single one of them is trained to support pupils with an additional support need or needs. That is a core part of initial teacher education. I take issue with Jeremy Balfour’s comments about teachers policing the classroom. That is certainly not why I, or any of my colleagues, came into education. We came in to make a difference to children’s lives, which is very different from the picture that was painted earlier.
Throughout the academic year, our teachers must evidence 35 hours of continuing professional development. For many, that time is used to hone their skills by focusing their training on the pupils who are in their care.
Children’s needs are not fixed. Consequently, our teachers’ training requirements will change over time to reflect the children who are in front of them. Good local authorities know that and will provide and promote training opportunities to ensure continuous improvement in the profession. Good teachers know that simply passing their teacher training or completing their probation is only part of the journey.
The Government’s amendment highlights its continuing commitment to a presumption to mainstream, and I hope that that perspective is shared across the chamber. However, as Liz Smith alluded to, we should be honest that there have been challenges in implementing mainstreaming for all pupils, because all pupils’ needs are unique and many of our schools were simply not built to accommodate children with additional support needs. That is a fact.
I declare that I am a parent of a child with additional support needs. My son has been diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder.
Just over three years ago, I asked Alasdair Allan, who was then the Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland’s Languages, whether the Scottish Government would consider a review of the presumption of mainstreaming, because of concerns that I had received about how the policy was being applied in practice. The review was committed to and I understand that it is on-going.
I echo Johann Lamont’s point that we would benefit from a longer debate that would allow for longer, and perhaps more nuanced, speeches. However, the speeches up until now have been broadly very good in that respect. Perhaps such a debate can come at the end of the review process.
When we refer to additional support needs in the chamber, we must remember that such needs cover a wide spectrum. Some needs will be transient in nature and some will require minimal or short-term support, but others will require intensive and on-going support. When we talk about percentages and figures, it is important to remember that they cover a broad spectrum of need.
The debate is rightly focused on children with the highest tariffs of need—children who are perhaps not being provided with the support that they should be. That raises a question about consistency, because it is fair to say that there is variability in how children with additional support needs are being supported not only in different local authority areas but in different schools and, indeed, different classrooms. Sometimes that will come down to the ethos of an individual school or the approach of an individual teacher who has been inspired by training that they have undertaken or a course that they have been on.
The challenge is how we move from having those pockets of best practice to having a culture of best practice. As I pointed out in a debate that was led by Daniel Johnson, the key to getting it right for every child is the word “every”; it is about getting it right not for the majority of children but for every child, and if the system is not working properly for some children, we must work to make sure that it does. After all, if it is not working, that will impact not just on the child; they should be the central focus of our attention, but a wider impact will be felt by the child’s family, the other pupils in the class in which the child is being educated and the teachers and staff in the classroom and the wider school.
I suspect that members will have come across similar cases in their own surgeries, but the families and parents who come to my surgery to highlight things that have fallen down often feel ignored and sidelined and feel that they are not being properly included as partners in their child’s education. We must remember that parents should be seen as partners, given the important role that home as well as school plays in a child’s education performance. However, too many parents are feeling that their concerns are not being taken on board, are not being properly addressed or are being dismissed out of hand, and that is something that needs to be reflected on.
Finally, a point that I do not think has been raised in the debate is how we manage transitions for children, whether they be from early years to primary school, from primary to secondary school or from secondary to further or higher education or work. The environments that children move from and into are all very different, and if the transitions are not managed appropriately and the changes that they are going to experience are not properly explained, catered for and planned for in a suitable way, children who may well have coped perfectly well in a mainstream environment in one educational setting may find things falling down very quickly in another. I have written to the cabinet secretary to ask whether he would consider visiting the Orchard Brae campus in my constituency, which Aberdeen City Council has set up to provide specialist education to three to 18-year-olds. It very clearly looks at that whole life journey and the preparation for appropriate transitions.
I want to finish on a quote from Charlene Tait of Scottish Autism, who recently tweeted a sentiment that I think sums up how this debate should be framed. She said:
“inclusion is about how you feel not about who you sit next to”.
That should be the guiding principle that flows through the debate.
I begin by acknowledging the constructive manner in which Liz Smith has raised what is a very important issue. I also absolutely agree that we must distinguish between inclusion and mainstreaming; they can be the same thing, but not always. Mainstreaming without the required support being in place is counterproductive for a young person, their family and the wider learning community in a school, and it also drives up demand for specialist schools among some young people who might be served well by and flourish in a mainstream inclusive setting, but only if the correct support is available.
I welcome the Scottish Government funds that have been made available—I will say more about that in a second—and the soon-to-be-published revised guidance to drive up consistency in standards across all local authorities. However, my question is this: how will that guidance be monitored once it has been implemented and how will councils’ performance in relation to it be audited? If that does not happen, it will simply be guidance sitting on a shelf. Indeed, Johann Lamont and Clare Adamson have already made some very important points about the challenges of monitoring and capturing the information that is out there.
On the issue of resources, we need to be honest: they are finite, and we can certainly do with more. That is self-evident. Different councils give different levels of priority to and make different levels of investment in inclusive mainstreaming and specialist school provision, which we must remember is a valued part of the wider school estate.
We also want national consistency. Getting an assessment from the local authority or the national health service is easier in some areas than in others, which makes it difficult to ascertain the level of additional support needs in different local authorities. We are not always comparing apples with apples, and the question is how all of that feeds into the funding formula for local authorities or health boards. If we start to pick apart that formula, we see how self-interest can lead to pork-barrel politics in how money gets moved across the various regions and local authorities in Scotland. There should be no self-interest when it comes to additional support needs—the only interest should be what is best for the young person and their families. We all talk about local flexibility. However, let us acknowledge that, if we are to get national standards, there could be constraints on councils.
I will use the second half of my speech to talk about a mum I know quite well, who I met this morning. She is the mum of a primary 7 child who is on the autistic spectrum. That woman has the skill set, determination and knowledge to fight for her son’s rights, and she certainly does that—and succeeds. Her son is approaching a vital transition period, as he currently attends a specialist school on a co-located campus and hopes to attend a mainstream secondary school with a specialist support unit. Although his mum would have preferred a more local secondary school with a support unit, there was certainty about where her son would go. However, Glasgow City Council has decided to move that support unit from one secondary school to another. It is unclear how many members of staff will be redeployed to the second school or what the structure of the support unit there will be. That young person and his family need certainty in planning for his transition, and that is potentially being undermined.
I wanted to raise that issue today, because this topic is not only about the quality of provision in our schools but about planning for transition for young people and their families. When we seek to improve, reform, update, advance or progress whatever system we have across 32 local authorities, we must do so with the wider community and for the long term. We must ensure that the voices of those living with autism and other additional support needs and their families are at the heart of it, so that families do not lose out in important areas such as transition.
I welcome today’s debate and reaffirm our support for mainstreaming, for which all speakers have shown support.
The presumption of mainstreaming is an important feature of our education system, benefiting children with additional support needs and creating a more inclusive system for all.
I thank Inclusion Scotland and Enable Scotland for their informative briefings ahead of the debate. My closing remarks will focus on some of the issues that they raise in those briefings. I will reflect on the challenges that they highlight in order to give an extra voice to the people they represent.
One of the main challenges of mainstreaming for schools is resourcing. That is why we lodged an amendment to reflect the impact that cuts have had on the promotion and maintenance of mainstreaming.
“Mainstreaming in itself does not necessarily mean inclusive education, Cuts to learning support staff, including teachers and other support workers, will further disadvantage disabled pupils and restrict their full inclusion.”
Those are not my words but the view of Inclusion Scotland. Since 2014, 122 specialist teachers have been lost, while the number of pupils with additional support needs has risen by more than 40,000. That is simply unacceptable. It is unacceptable for children with additional support needs, for other pupils and for the teaching staff who are under pressure to support all Scotland’s children.
A recent EIS survey revealed that 52 per cent of teachers say that supporting pupils with additional support needs has caused them stress in the past 12 months. When asked to agree or disagree with the statement,
“the provision for children and young people with additional support needs is adequate in my school”, more than 78 per cent of teachers disagreed, with 42 per cent strongly disagreeing. That is the view of the teachers who work in our classrooms each and every day, and it means that children with additional support needs are not being given the education that they need in order to learn and prosper.
Inclusion Scotland reveals that more than 10 per cent of school leavers with additional support needs leave school with no qualifications at Scottish credit and qualifications framework level 3, compared with less than 2 per cent of children with no additional support needs.
“Simply being present in a mainstream classroom does not mean you are included.”
Again, those are not my words, but those of Enable Scotland.
To ensure that mainstreaming works for children who have additional support needs, there must be quicker, effective assessment of their needs. If not, we will continue to create barriers for many children who have additional support needs and prevent them from being included and actively involved.
Once more, it all comes down to staffing and resourcing. The Conservative motion fails to address the issue of funding in our schools. Instead, it seeks to take a regressive step that could be punitive to children who could prosper with mainstreaming, but only if the right resources are in place.
We should all support the presumption to mainstream. It supports inclusion and benefits children who have additional support needs. Otherwise, we could go backwards and separate children from their peers, creating divisions and more barriers.
This has been a helpful debate, and I will try to respond positively to Johann Lamont’s call for more debating time to consider the issue, as echoed by Mark McDonald. I will also consider Mr McDonald’s invitation to visit the Orchard Brae school campus, which sounds like a fascinating facility for meeting the needs of young people. I aim to do that as quickly as I can.
Johann Lamont and Mary Fee talked about the outcomes and impact of the policy and what it has achieved. It is important to put on the record what has been achieved by young people who have additional support needs in mainstream education. In 2016-17, 69 per cent of school leavers with additional support needs left school with one or more qualifications at SCQF level 5 or better. That was an increase of 13.8 per cent since 2011-12, and it demonstrates, on one measure, the effectiveness of the mainstreaming approach.
In 2016-17, 65.2 per cent of school leavers, including special school pupils, with additional support needs attained one or more qualifications at that level, which was an increase of 10 percentage points since 2011-12. We also look carefully at the number of pupils with additional support needs who go on to positive destinations, which increased by 5 percentage points between 2011-12 and 2016-17. Young people have made achievements through mainstream education and that is something that we should celebrate.
The cabinet secretary has touched on a point that I wanted to ask him about. A constituent of mine who is a distressed mother came to see me about her autistic son, who is not receiving sufficient support at high school. He cannot cope with the curriculum and the stress and anxiety while he is doing his national 4 exams. Does the cabinet secretary believe that the colleges sector can play a role in delivering more practical skills and learning experiences for young people who have autism?
That might be a possibility for the individual concerned and, as I said to Liz Smith during my earlier speech, I encourage dialogue between the family and the local authority about the issue. We must make sure that a judgment is made about the correct educational setting for every young person.
The issue of resources was touched on during the debate. As I have told Parliament previously, the resources that are spent on additional support for learning increased from £584 million in 2015-16 by 2.3 per cent in real terms and 4.5 per cent in cash terms.
I am conscious of the significance of resources and I do not want to strike a discordant note at the end of my speech, but it is a little bit incredible for Alison Harris to give us lessons about resources when her party supports a policy of reducing the amount of money that is available to public finances because of the tax position that it supports. Tomorrow, of course, we will see whether the Conservatives will support any money being allocated to public services through the passage of the budget.
I will conclude with the points that Jenny Gilruth raised. She put the changes in our education system as a result of the passage of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 into their proper context, as we might expect from a former teacher. She illustrated that the change in the approach to education that has come about through the benefits and advantages of inclusion has required adaptations in teaching practice and in our education system, but the education of our young people is the better for our taking a mainstreaming approach and making an inclusive commitment to Scottish education, and the Government is committed to maintaining that.
I am pleased to close today’s debate on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives, because it is incredibly important to talk about these issues in the chamber. I am pleased that the cabinet secretary has picked up on the strong hints from members that we would like to discuss the issues more in Government time.
Collectively, as a society, as a Parliament, as—I say this gently— a Government, as local authorities and as individual schools, it is often very difficult to say the truth out loud, which is that we are not getting it right for every young person in Scotland. As it stands, our education system is failing a small but significant group of young people. We have to be honest with ourselves. When I speak to constituents who are experiencing exactly the difficulties that we have been discussing today, I find it very difficult to explain to them why the system is letting them down so badly. In that context, I welcome the tone from members and the cabinet secretary today.
Inclusion is so important, but it is not just about being present in the classroom or even the school building, as many have said. We have to redouble our efforts to make sure that the reality matches up with the rhetoric for the young people and parents whom we are here to represent. Bob Doris made an important point about the variability across Scotland. I can only speak for my local authority area, but if there are similar problems elsewhere, it would point to systematic issues—members must see that in their mailbags—and I think that we have heard about them today.
We know for a fact that current practices are just not good enough. The expertise and support is out there; we have lots of talented people in our education system and lots of specialist provision that could be better used. I join Iain Gray in referring to the recent work by a number of autism charities that has highlighted unlawful exclusions. Of course, the report that he mentioned was not the first one in which we saw those concerns raised—Enable raised them in its report, “#IncludED in the Main?!”. It is clear that, right across the country, there is a problem in this area, with many good teachers, good schools and proactive parents struggling to work in partnership to ensure that young people access their legal right to an education.
We have to ask ourselves what principle we are putting first. Although the presumption of mainstreaming is, as others have said, important and noble, we cannot disregard what is in the best interests of a child or young person. True inclusion is about listening to what young people and parents are asking for. I find all too often in my constituency work that people are crying out for help. They often find that the type of support that the local authority offers through mainstreaming is inadequate and does not meet their needs. We have to be willing to listen, to approach these complex issues with an open mind and to work hard to find the best solution. We also need to trust our professionals and listen to what they say. Teachers and specialists are identifying clear issues, as Mary Fee and others have highlighted.
We need to think of inclusion as something that happens not just in schools. I am well aware from my work with them that some young people find that getting intensive support for a short period is more important than mainstreaming—even if that means, in some sense, that they are being excluded. By getting the right support in the short term, young people will get the long-term advantage of being more included in society, by fulfilling their potential and by being able to access workplace opportunities. We have to find the right balance. Sometimes being excluded from a mainstream setting in the short term to access specialist support can offer more in the long term.
We have heard that there is a great deal of positive practice to build on, but we cannot ignore the issues that have been highlighted right across the chamber. No one has said that the issues are easy, but we must be willing to embrace the challenges, or things will not get better. Inaction and simply saying that we have noble policies in place is not enough. I commend the Scottish Conservative motion to the chamber.
That concludes the debate. Before we move onto the next item of business, I say that I am aware that I am hurrying you all up, but we are already starting the next debate late.