The support saga: a data story

Once upon a time there were a group of wise people who thought all was not well in the world of education.   One day, in 1978, they came together and said some of our children in our schools will require some support at some time. They said that every fifth child in a village, town or city would require support.

A long, long time after the wise people had reported all that they found, a committee of the parliament sat in Edinburgh town. They were worried about an exponential growth in the numbers of boys and girls throughout all the land needing additional support. So they listened to some people and then they listened to some more. But they never thought to look back at the words of the group of wise people from the century before.   For there had been no epidemic of support needs in recent years. All across the hills and lochs of the country, all that had happened was teachers got better at completing a census about support.

In the land of the Scots every year before the leaves shaded from green to brown, the leader in each and every school was commanded to fill out the census of the ScotXed.   Some of the leaders did not like to do this at all, so they got some of their helpers to fill out every box as ordered by the ScotXeders. The saga of the census which took place annually, each and every year told the story who got what in support for learning. The numbers told a new story, a happy one.

The story of the numbers was this: each August about 53,000 children start school and then by the end of June, roughly 53,000 will leave school education. Overall, there will be about 679,000 in Scottish schools. Roundabout the year 2011, teachers were asked to record more information about who got what in terms of additional support and to do that for the next five years.

For half a decade, the teachers in schools got better and better at counting the children with support needs and reached the 1 in 5 level that the wise people had said way back in the last century.

Over the 5 year period of reporting, schools identified more and more of the children and young people getting more and more support. In 2011 this number was 98,523 and by 2015 the count was now 153,190 children and young people across Scotland.   It was only that people (teachers people) had become more sensitive to who needed support and year on year for five years they got better at reporting and recording the information. This was indeed a good thing.

It wasn’t just a matter of that one number, there were lots of numbers. These numbers told a number of different tales in the saga of support.

They told a story of more and more plans for the children in the schools. Over the years of better counting, the total number of plans increased from 49,787 in 2011 to 60,119 plans in 2015. More plans must be a good thing, surely! But it wasn’t just the number of plans, there had been a big change in the types of plans. Down went the number of plans called IEPs, down went plans called CSPs and up and up went the number called child’s plans.  Not many people knew this.

The numbers of IEPs reported decreased from 42,819 in 2011 to 37,168 in 2015. In this time the number of co-ordinated support plans decreased from 3,617 to 2,716.

While somewhat remarkably the number of child’s plans grew, grew, and grew from 3,351 to 20,235. This may well be a very good thing as an IEP usually concerns itself with education while a plan of the child is a more holistic document.

“Plans! Plans! What good are plans?” I hear you say. Plans don’t amount to much unless there are people there in place to not only carry them out but to make sure its good quality support.

In terms of the types of support given to children needing support there were five years of numbers too.

The identified number of children in schools receiving support from specialist learning support teachers had risen from 50,789 in 2011 to 85,471 in 2015. Numbers receiving support from other support for learning staff such as support assistants rose from 36,461 to 71,693.

The reported numbers weren’t just to do with staff in education though, those more holistic plans were supported by other public services. Like Social Work services who increased their level of support from 8,282 to supporting 17,554 children while health service support rises from 14,044 to 30,929 children and young people.

And then it wasn’t just public sector, the third sector were helping too. Through the voluntary sector the recorded numbers receiving support have risen from 1,116 children and young people to 2,526 being supported.

There is even a mysterious “other” form of support that nobody knows what it is but we do know that it has increased from 8,110 in 2011 to 28,676 in 2015. Or so the teachers in each and every school in Scotland are telling us.

The number story wasn’t just being told by teachers. Enquire is the independent advisory service for parents, children and young people with about additional support. They record the numbers of enquiries linked to additional support need issues, many of these are likely to be complaints. In 2011, Enquire received 1,264 enquiries related to additional support. In 2014-15, Enquire received 1,444 enquiries relating to additional support for learning. An increase of 14%. While numbers identified and recorded as receiving support grew from 98, 0000 to 150,000, the number of enquiries increased by 14%.

You might wonder, given better recording of numbers, more and more provision being identified what has happened with numbers using advocacy, mediation, adjudication or the Tribunal? Exponential increase perhaps? Even at the sharp end when parents are fighting for their rights and what they see as best for their children the numbers tell a fuller story.

In 2011, 35 requests were made for independent advocacy, 87 cases using mediation, 18 referrals to the independent adjudication service, 13 Section 70 complaints to Scottish Ministers and 73 referrals to the Tribunal.   In 2015, 75 requests were made for independent advocacy, 156 cases using mediation, 4 referrals to the independent adjudication service, 2 Section 70 complaints to Scottish Ministers and 78 referrals to the Tribunal.

In the five years of annual reporting the number of uses of mediation are as follows

2011 87 cases, in 2012 73 cases, 2013 86 cases, in 2014 134 cases and by 2015 156 cases. This again is a good thing.

There are more numbers that tell further parts of the story – the money numbers! Education budgets like other public sector services have been reduced since 2008. There is a further discussion and debate about those numbers.

This blog has attempted to give a fuller story of what’s happening in our schools as teachers get better at recording information about they do in the schools to support children and young people with additional support needs. In my view the range and quality of work in support in our schools is under recognised and undervalued. If we are truly seeking to improve equity and excellence then the quality of support services are a key resource to support learning and increase achievement.

Will they live happily ever after?

No wonder Scottish education’s going backward

The recent publication of the Education and Skills committee report marks another interesting step backwards for Scottish education. Offering very much a mixed package it supported mainstreaming but had concerns about inclusion. It questioned the level of resources for additional support needs but was worried about teachers diverting time to children with additional support needs in their class. It was concerned about impact on attainment yet took no account of how inclusive education leads to better achievement of the four capacities. Throughout it assumed that special schools are a major part of the answer yet ignored the voices of young people in special schools who feel they aren’t supported.

In terms of the big picture it lacked any great support for the aspiration of an inclusive Scotland where discrimination is challenged and the segregation of disabled children and people from the mainstream of society is ended.

It was a mixed report. In part it was mixed as it relied on anecdote. For instance the anonymous contributor from Dalkeith campus who suggested there was an “exponential’ rise in additional support needs. The Committee and the anonymous contributor seemed unaware that the Warnock Report from 1978 (so last century I know) said

we recommend that the planning of services for children and young people should be based on the assumption that about one in six children at any time and up to one in five children at some time during their school career will require some form of special educational provision.”

In Scotland in 1994 the EPSEN document from HMI said much the same. In its introduction it stated,

“A proportion of pupils, estimated at around 20%, have learning difficulties which are more intractable, but which respond to measures, such as through the assistance of a learning support specialist and/or some curricular adaptations.”

While the Education and Skills Committee (2017) has it as

“The context for the committee’s analysis of education for children with additional support needs in this report is the “exponential” increase in the recorded incidence of children with additional support needs in recent years to a level beyond many people’s expectations”.

In 1978, it was assumed about an estimated 20% of kids would have support needs, in 1994 in Scotland HMI estimated the proportion as 20% and by 2016 according to the Report to Parliament this has increased (exponentially) to an identified 22.5%.

The Committee should have been asking have our educational services been planned to take account of 22.5% of children having additional support needs. Has this significant improvement in the identification, recording and reporting on children with additional support needs by teachers in every school in Scotland and across all education authorities led to better provision and outcomes?

Relying on anecdote and gathering people’s is one way to gain a view of public services, collating and analysing evidence is another. Scottish education has some very good sources of data and information which would assist any Parliamentary Committee. The source in this instance is called the Annual Report to Parliament on Additional Support for Learning.   In terms of outcomes it provides a picture of improving outcomes but also clear evidence of gaps across the range and types of additional support needs. The annual reports are not referenced in the bibliography. If referenced, they would have found the fact that children with social emotional and behavioural needs attain 20% of the national average a clear attainment gap that should be a national cause for concern.

The Committee might have wanted to look at the attainment of children with additional support needs arising from English as an Additional Language. The annual reports not only indicate that schools and education authorities are getting better at identifying such children and young people but also that they are attaining in line with national averages. In 2015 the OECD commended Scottish education saying “Scottish schools are inclusive” – they highlighted three measures of inclusion – the attainment of migrant children, the social mix of Scottish comprehensive and the performance of rural school being better than urban schools. It’s disappointing that the Committee fails to acknowledge when schools and education authorities in Scotland perform at world-class levels. Just because socially mixed inclusive schools doesn’t fit some people’s dogma we have to continue to knock our schools and authorities on their journey towards an inclusive Scotland.

One final point about evidence gathering, observation is another good source of evidence in addition to people’s views. It is another shame that Committee members visited Dalkeith Community campus, visited the two secondary schools yet didn’t manage to get along to the third school on the Campus – the special school, Satlersgate School. They could have been asking how well the shared campus works to support children’s education and their support needs.

As well as neglecting to visit special schools, the voice of children from special school was neglected. “Included in the Main” a report from Enable similarly ignored their views. The “Included in the Main” report asked young people with additional support needs and their satisfaction with their educational setting

“Only one-third (33%) of young people in mainstream school felt they were getting the right support in school. This is compared with two-thirds (66.67%) for young people who attend mainstream with an ASN base. Interestingly only just over one-third (37.5%) of young people who attend a special school said they felt they were getting the right support at school.

A similar trend was demonstrated throughout various responses. 42% of children in solely mainstream provision thought they were doing well in school. Two-thirds (66.67%) of children who attend mainstream with an ASN base felt they were doing well. Interestingly only 44% of those in Special School felt the same.”

Perhaps that report could have been re-titled “Interestingly, Excluded in the Special”? 😉

There remains a gap between policy aspiration and practice as experienced by children and families of those with additional support needs. The words of parents in the Committee’s report are extremely concerning such as children receiving no education or excluded to part-time timetables (which happens in special schools too). Scotland would have been better served by identifying the gaps in outcomes using data from the annual report to Parliament, seeking greater collaboration across support to better meet the needs of all and reconfiguring the role of special schools towards preventing failure in mainstream as part of new ways to help and assist inclusive education.


Education and Skills Committee report 2017

Warnock Report 1978

Effective Provision for SEN 1994 excerpts


Improving Schools in Scotland (OECD) 2015

Supporting Children’s Learning: Implementation of the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004  (2016)