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Why are so many Scots children labelled with ‘additional support needs’?


THE recently launched Scottish Union for Education (SUE) has been discussing Restorative Practice (RP) in Scottish schools. In a nutshell, the embodiment of this strategy means we have gone from: ‘Sit down, be quiet and do as you’re told’ to ‘What went wrong for you today?’ and ‘How can I help to make things better?’ It is widely understood that poor behaviour is one of the biggest barriers to education, but there is another factor which needs to be addressed: the substantial rise in pupils diagnosed as having additional support needs (ASN).

The latest Scottish government statistics state: ‘The number of pupils identified with additional support needs (ASN) has increased markedly since 2010 and there continue to be year on year increases. These increases were likely due in part to continued improvements in recording and the introduction of the additional need types ‘Child plans’ and ‘Other’ in 2011. There were 241,639 pupils (34.2 per cent of all pupils) with an additional support need (ASN) recorded in 2022.’

In 2010/11 when the changes highlighted above were introduced, 9.5 per cent of pupils in Scotland were recorded as having an ASN. With an increase to more than a third it now seems appropriate to investigate the possible causes behind this worrying trend.

I have worked with children in a professional capacity for nearly 26 years and have on several occasions found cause to query the logic behind both diagnosis and data collection. I list some of my questions below.

Clinical diagnosis

During my time as a foster carer, I was looking after a 14-year-old boy who as a result of family breakdown had been placed in emergency care. I was asked to accompany him to a clinic to complete an ADHD assessment. The child sat in front a screen for 20 minutes watching coloured shapes move about and had to click the mouse every time they changed in colour or shape. I was intrigued as to how this assessment would be used and what other assessments would be carried out, so I asked the receptionist if I could speak directly to the specialist in charge. I was told that she was not in that day and that the parent/carer would get a follow-up phone call.

1.   Are the current assessments used by clinical professionals complex and thorough enough to diagnose ASD, ADHD and related conditions accurately?

2.   What internal audit systems are in place to ensure consistency in diagnosis and quality decision-making?

Financial support

Once a clinical diagnosis has been reached on a child, there are a number of financial support schemes parents/carers can apply for e.g. Disability Living Allowance, between £24.45 and £156.90 a week and the carers’ allowance, £69.70 a week .

3.   Does the benefit system encourage parents/carers to seek a clinical diagnosis?

Stopping the blame game

A 15-year-old boy placed in emergency care with me had a penchant for stealing and crashing cars. Since his social worker neglected to pass on this critical information, I was unprepared for this. He stole my car and drove more than 60 miles before picking his mates up and crashing into a parked car. Fortunately, nobody was hurt. At the request of his mother, his was assessed and received a clinical diagnosis which was taken into account when being sentenced resulting in a fine and ongoing supervision by the local Youth Offending Team.

Also, throughout my teaching career I have noticed that some pupils, once they had received their official clinical diagnosis, would then recreate themselves within the parameters of that condition, actually leading to a deterioration in behaviour and attitude which was subsequently excused and explained as the ‘expected behaviour’. I cannot recall how many times a child, when challenged about his or her behaviour, replied: ‘It’s not my fault, I’ve got ADHD.’

4.   Do parents/carers, social services and schools struggling to manage a child’s behaviour look for official evidence, an official reason that partly removes accountability from themselves and the child for any consequences of the child’s behaviour?

Non-clinical diagnosis

A non-clinical diagnosis is usually done in schools by the additional support staff. In Scotland, factors such as communication support needs, young carer, bereavement, substance misuse, family issues and risk of exclusion are all part of the criteria staff use to decide on ASN status. Once identified, pupils receive support in several ways including timeout cards, exemption from certain school rules, reduced timetables and safe spaces set aside for morning and lunchtime breaks.

One morning, whilst teaching at a secondary school in Fife, I accompanied my registration class to the year assembly in the hall, that day being taken by the pastoral team, known as Principal Teachers of Guidance. On each chair there was a small card with several questions including: Are you expected to tidy your bedroom? Do you help with shopping or housework? The responses were going to be used to identify any student who might fall within the criteria of having an ASN. I remember thinking that if I and my peers had been asked either of those two questions at that age, the SEN register would have included the whole school!

5.   Are schools too eager to identify and add pupils to the SEN register?

6.   Are schools under pressure from parents/carers to identify their child as having an ASN in order to benefit from extra support in school?

There is no doubt that there is a genuine increase in children demonstrating behaviour patterns that warrant robust investigation and deserve the appropriate support. This has been further exacerbated by increased level of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents since the catastrophic decision to close schools during the Covid era. Nevertheless, with finite resources, the ‘year on year increases’ are not sustainable. What percentage of pupils with an ASN within the system do we have to reach before we really start to pay attention and avoid a crisis in the classroom?


Statistics on England SEN figures: According to the Department for Education: ‘The number of pupils with special educational needs (SEN) increased to 1.49 million pupils in 2022, representing 16.5 per cent of all pupils. The proportion of pupils with SEN had been decreasing since 2010 (21.1 per cent), however it has increased for the last five years.’

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Julie Sandilands
Julie Sandilands
Julie Sandilands is an English/business teacher who worked in several secondary schools in Fife until 2017. Now based in Cumbria, she works as a private tutor teaching children both in and out of mainstream provision.

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