I begin by acknowledging the cross-party support that the motion we are debating has attracted and my gratitude for that. The first seven signatures it secured were sufficient to ensure that every party represented in Parliament had backed it. That is clearly indicative of the fact that the subject matter transcends party-political allegiances. I hope that the tone and nature of the debate will reflect that. The issues covered in the Enable Scotland report, “#IncludED in the Main?!” are way too important to be the subject of point-scoring around service provision and its funding.
It is now 17 years since the presumption in favour of mainstreaming was enshrined in the Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000. That act was followed in 2004 by the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004, in which it is stated:
“Every education authority must—
(a) in relation to each child and young person having additional support needs ... make adequate and efficient provision for such additional support as is required by that child or young person”
Tonight we consider Enable Scotland’s report “#IncludED in the Main?!”, which makes 22 recommendations to complete the journey to true inclusion—arguing that we are not there yet—in terms of catering for not just educational but emotional needs, and ensuring that there is sufficient support in place to ensure participation in all parts of school life. We debate against a backdrop of the Scottish Government reviewing the guidance on the presumption in favour of mainstreaming and of a ministerial team that has a genuine understanding of the subject and a commitment to getting it right for every child—every child.
Time constraints will prevent me from exploring the specifics of the recommendations. I hope that, between them, colleagues who are taking part tonight might be able to at least touch on some of them.
The “#IncludED in the Main?!” report draws on the full gamut of experience. It canvassed the views of children and young people, parents and carers and the education workforce. It is telling that 80 per cent of that last category indicated that the presumption that all could and should be taught in mainstream settings means that we are not taking account of getting it right for every child. That “we” is society, not national or local Government, but society.
I contend that it is not so much the principle of mainstreaming, but the way in which it is being interpreted and implemented that is at the root of the problem. There will always be a role for specialist schools catering for kids with the most complex needs, but we can cater for the majority of ASN children in the mainstream if the will and, yes, sufficient resource is there.
This is not an easy subject. There are some difficult aspects to it. One such aspect is the reality that medical advances mean that we have children with very complex needs being catered for in mainstream school settings, with all the impact that that has on resources and, indeed, on the support being afforded to other ASN youngsters.
Another aspect is the massive spike in kids being identified as having additional support needs, which is a good thing on one level, but brings with it an accompanying resource issue.
I should acknowledge that I come to this subject as the husband of an ASN assistant. However, more than anything, my interest is driven by my experience as a constituency MSP dealing with casework. We have come a long way since 2000—there is no doubt about that—but on the ground, there is a lack of consistency in approach and resourcing.
In relation to the former, I was speaking recently to a headteacher who had decided to externally review the ASN provision within his school, which has a good reputation in that regard. His school sits in a local authority which has no special school available to cater for children with very complex needs. It buys in a small number of places annually from a facility in a neighbouring council area.
One of the external reviewers heads up a special needs school elsewhere in Scotland. The headteacher was taken aback to discover that the reviewer had at her disposal 14 teaching and 51 support staff to cater for a roll of 56 children. The special needs school had a resourcing level that was way beyond what he had at his disposal, and it was one of three such schools in that local authority.
There has to be a place for such specialist schools, to cater for kids with the most complex needs, not least because that frees up resource to support those bairns who, right now, are falling through the cracks—youngsters whose attainment levels and sense of self-worth could, with just a little help and support, be raised.
We tend, when we talk about closing the attainment gap, to link the problem to poverty but, as this report states, the attainment gap does not start and end on that point. Young folk with learning disabilities experience many other barriers to achieving their potential. Albeit in a different context, the First Minister acknowledged that last week in announcing a £2 million fund to improve access to nursery for children with ASN. In closing, could the minister outline whether and to what extent the guidance that is offered to headteachers on deploying the additional funding given to them directly to tackle attainment challenges references ASN pupils?
Of all the experiences that I have had as an MSP these past six years, there is one more than any other that has stuck with me. A couple of years back I met a young lad—a young carer—whose brother suffers from a rare disease. I could only begin to imagine what life at home must be like for him, with a younger sibling demanding not just his parents’ attention, but his. Then he explained to me that he suffered from dyslexia and was struggling to achieve his potential at school because the support that was meant to be in place for him was not being provided. He was meant to have time in the learning support base for one-to-one support to cope with school work but he told me, “There’s a girl in the base who behaves really badly and the staff are always dealing with her, so I don’t get the help I need.” There he was, with his home life as it was, and he was being let down in the educational setting—and he readily recognised the detrimental impact of that lack of support at school.
Much more recently, just a few weeks ago, I met a mum whose teenage daughter, who has complex needs, has been unable to attend the local secondary school base for some months. Ahead of an effort to try to reintegrate her, the mum was invited to visit the newly refurbished base facilities, which she had been told would be an asset in catering for the girl, who is, among other things, autistic. However, the decor’s colour scheme was not autism friendly. The sensory room was tiny and the soundproofing was so inadequate that, sitting in it, she could hear the kids passing in the adjoining corridor. Those are simple, basic things.
That parent’s experience is typical of the experience that is identified in the report. When parents and carers were asked to describe their experience of the school system, 67 per cent used the word “battle”, 77 per cent used the word “stressful” and 44 per cent used the word “alone”. When asked if the support that was provided was enough to secure their child’s participation in all aspects of school life, less than 12 per cent of parents and carers felt that it was. Even allowing for the fact that a proportion of parents—let us face it—have unreasonable expectations about what should be available, that is still a concerning number. Of course, we are not just talking about strictly educational matters, it is also about mental wellbeing, and 60 per cent of the kids with learning difficulties who were interviewed said that they felt lonely at school.
Presiding Officer, can I, having already declared an interest, give a shout out to those hard-pressed ASN staff in our mainstream schools who are having to contend with increasing demands—not just numerically, but in terms of the range of conditions—in catering for children and young people with incredibly complex needs through to those bairns like the young lad I mentioned earlier who just need that little bit of support? The staff do a remarkable job and we should take this opportunity to acknowledge that. Time and again, I hear parents of ASN children drawing a distinction between criticising the support for their kids and those who seek to provide it.
I will conclude and allow colleagues to contribute to the debate. The “#IncludED in the Main?!” report sums the situation up rather well when it says that the policy of mainstreaming
“has undoubtedly been a positive step towards equality”
“creating a more inclusive society”
but now we need
“to ensure that this policy is supporting children who have learning disabilities to be properly supported and fully #IncludED at their school”
because only then
“will … our societal aspiration for full inclusion be realised.”