Publication: Children and young people who need additional support for learning

May 17, 2022 by Accounts Commission

Additional support for learning – the gap between ambition and reality for our children


Blog: By Stephen Moore, Accounts Commission Member

Around a third of children and young people in Scotland’s publicly-funded schools (that’s around 233,000 pupils) need additional support. And that number has been increasing for years. There are many reasons why a child might need additional support.

Infographic showing the five most common reasons for needing additional support

The five most common reasons for needing additional support are:

  • 7.8% - Social, emotional and behavioural difficulty
  • 6.0% - English as an additional language
  • 4.5% - Other moderate learning difficulty
  • 3.8% - Other specific learning difficulty, such as numeric
  • 3.6% - Dyslexia

Note: Percentage of the total number of pupils in Scotland's publicly-funded schools.

These can be as varied as having a life-threatening physical condition to being a young carer. Most children and young people who need additional support go to a mainstream school, with a much smaller number going to special schools.

Infographic showing around 7,600 pupils attended 111 publicly-funded special schools in 2021

The Scottish Government’s stated ambition is for all children and young people in Scotland to have the opportunity to grow up loved, safe and respected, enabling them to reach their full potential.

Every child has the same rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, including the right to an education that develops their personality, talents and abilities to the full, and the right for their parents to get the support they need. Schools, councils and other public bodies are required to work together to provide the right type of support for all children and their families. But this isn’t always happening as it should.

The needs of children and young people vary considerably. Some children only have a short-term identified need. Others have complex needs that will require ongoing support throughout their lives. Some children and young people need help involving specialist educational support as well as social work services, health services and the voluntary sector. At their best, these multidisciplinary teams work together, enabling children and young people to get the support they need, empowering them to reach their full potential and live the life they choose.

These ambitions aren’t, however, consistently being delivered in practice. In 2020, an independent review found that not all pupils in Scotland are always getting the additional support they need, when they need it. In many cases, individuals’ needs are not given the focus they should be. Numerous aspects of additional support therefore need to be improved.

It’s distressing and frustrating that we repeatedly hear of the barriers that some families fight against to get the right support to help their child to learn. Too often, families are worn down by a prolonged search for the right support, and by having to manage a crisis that could have and should have been avoided. Families are partners with public services and should be regarded as such.

On top of that, transitions between school stages – and how they are managed – can have a big influence on the success or otherwise of someone’s journey through the education system. A child’s needs can evolve over time, from pre-school until after they have left school. Not getting the right support both at these different stages and to make moving between the stages as seamless as possible can have a lasting impact on learning, wellbeing and happiness. Public services are required to anticipate these changing needs and plan accordingly.

Councils provide support in different ways, with a wide variation in spending on pupils who need additional support. This partly reflects the different ways services are provided and the varying costs of supporting individuals – but may also reflect local decisions by councils to prioritise between a wide range of services.

Education aims to improve the health and wellbeing of children and young people, supporting wider outcomes such as life skills, apprenticeships and employment. This is set out in the National Improvement Framework and is embedded across the education system. School education and success shouldn’t just focus on exam results. It’s vital to monitor the outcomes that matter most to individuals who need additional support but, as we’ve said previously, information to allow this to happen isn’t always available.

From the information that is available, even the current measures show wide disparity. We know that children and young people who need additional support don’t always get the opportunities they deserve. Overall, a smaller proportion of school leavers with additional support needs progress to a ‘positive destination’ such as college, university, training or employment. This potentially affects their life chances and personal fulfilment.

Infographic showing the percentage of school leavers who progressed to a 'positive destination'

93 per cent of school leavers who needed additional support progressed to a 'positive destination' compared to 97 per cent of those who did not need additional support.

And the proportion of children who achieve expected Curriculum for Excellence Levels for their stage at school is significantly lower for pupils who need additional support compared to those who don’t.

Infographic showing the percentage of pupils who achieved the expected reading level in 2020/21

For reading in 2020/21, 57 per cent of pupils in P1 who needed additional support achieved the expected level compared to 80 per cent of pupils who didn’t need additional support; 51 per cent compared to 83 per cent in P4; and 55 per cent compared to 87 percent in P7.

Across so many areas, Covid-19 has exacerbated and deepened risks and inequalities. School closures and reductions in vital support services have intensified inequalities for children and young people who need additional support. We know that individuals who have disabilities and complex needs, along with their families, were particularly affected. The impact on the mental health of children and young people who need additional support has also been significant. Some families have asked if their child can repeat a year at school due to the difficulties they’ve experienced, or because there was insufficient planning to move from one stage of learning to another. However, it must be recognised that for some children who need additional support, learning at home rather than in a school environment was a more positive experience.

The Scottish Government and councils are already working to implement changes following the independent review in 2020. These changes need to consider the wide range of services that should work together to put the child/young person and their family at the centre. Public services need to improve how they’re joining up, across professions, to plan and provide the right support to meet individuals' needs.

We’ve seen that many public services responded quickly to the challenges presented by the pandemic, showing that change can happen quickly and effectively to support individuals and communities. And councils have the power to improve services as they ‘build back better’. Children and young people must be given the support and access to the right services that enable them to flourish and thrive. It will be crucial to make improvements to services and staffing that ensure continuity as someone moves through the education system.

Central to the Accounts Commission’s priorities is emphasising and reporting on the debilitating and life-impacting inequalities faced by too many across Scotland’s communities. The lack of the right support, at the right time, for children and young people who need additional support – and their families – can exacerbate and intensify these inequalities. So we will continue to focus on this important area as part of our ongoing work.

Stephen Moore, Accounts Commission Member