FOR years now, two sets of statistics have been heading in opposite directions, with serious results for Scotland’s schools. On the one hand, the number of pupils identified as having additional support needs (ASN) has been increasing significantly; on the other, the number of support teachers in Scotland has fallen. The worry is that, as the recorded need goes up and the number of teachers goes down, children of all abilities are being caught in the middle.

The latest figures would appear to confirm the trend. According to the Scottish Government pupil census, the number of pupils identified with ASN increased from 118,034 in 2012 to 183,491 in 2017 – a rise of 55.5 per cent. However, the figures also show that in the same period, the number of specialist ASN teachers decreased from 3,248 to 2, 733, a decline of 15.9 per cent and a new low. The trend is clear and it is getting worse.

Some context is needed though. For a start, the term “additional support needs” applies to a wide range of issues. In many cases, it will mean a learning disability or dyslexia. However, it can also include pupils struggling with bereavement or other family issues, pupils who have English as a second language, or even pupils struggling because they are more able than others. It is this relatively wide definition that helps explain the high numbers.

It is also clear that improved recognition and diagnosis of certain conditions will have played some part in the increase in the number of pupils with ASN, although that should never be used as a way to deny what is happening. The daily reality is that schools are not being given enough support to meet the needs of pupils with special needs, with troubling consequences in the classroom. Not only is it hard for staff to support pupils with extra needs, if a teacher does not have support, they can end up spending a disproportionate time on pupils with extra needs, which means all pupils suffering in the long run.

The campaign group the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition also makes an important point about how the reduced number of support teachers might be affecting pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Pupils with ASN are more likely to come from low income families but it is often better-off parents who are more able to make themselves heard and win support for their children. If that leaves parents from poorer areas with a lower chance of ensuring their children receive extra support, then the obvious danger is that the shortage in support teachers will end up widening the attainment gap in Scotland even further.

In response, there may be some who will question the whole idea of mainstream education, but the concept of teaching pupils with additional needs in mainstream schools is still sound. In the days when many pupils were more likely to go to special schools, the pupils would often be stigmatised and marginalised and could find it hard to adjust to life after school. Mainstreaming also gives pupils the chance to mix with their peers and help children to understand and sympathise with others who can sometimes struggle in the classroom. And shouldn’t we be trying to create an atmosphere in which staff can identify the issues that pupils are struggling with and help them where they can?

However, what the latest figures from the pupil census have shown is that identifying additional needs is just the start of the process. If the policy of dealing with additional needs of all kinds in mainstream schools is to work, then the pupils must have the care and support they need and the latest figures, combined with repeated warnings from teachers, parents, charities and campaign groups, demonstrate that this is not happening. Mainstreaming is a policy worth supporting but it must be given the resources and support it deserves.