On Wednesday 30th January 2019, the Scottish Parliament agreed the following motion (S5M-15607):
That the Parliament notes the comments made by the OECD that inclusion is one of the key strengths of the Scottish education system; believes that the presumption to mainstream pupils has laudable intentions and that it works well for the majority of young people in Scotland’s schools; recognises however the very considerable concern that has been expressed by many teachers, teaching assistants, children’s charities and parents’ groups that a growing number of young people with special educational needs are not being well served by being placed in inclusive mainstream education; believes that this is putting additional pressures on teachers and young people in classrooms across Scotland, making it more difficult to support the individual needs of each child; in light of the recent evidence presented to Parliament, calls on the Scottish Government to work with local government partners to review the presumption to mainstream policy to ensure there can be more effective uptake of the provision of places in special schools and specialist units and utilisation of specialist staff, and, agrees that this review should be founded on a continuing commitment to a presumption to mainstream and on the need to ensure that children and young people’s additional support needs are met, to enable them to reach their full potential, from within whichever learning provision best suits their learning needs, and notes the forthcoming publication of revised guidance, tools and advice for school staff, and national research, on the experiences of children and young people with additional support needs.
The motion was brought by Liz Smith MSP (Conservative) with the section from “and agrees that this review..” to the end, being added by an amendment brought by John Swinney MSP (SNP), the Cabinet Secretary for Education.
It is significant that the motion carried cross-party support, with very little disagreement except on minor points of emphasis. While the motion itself speaks about a review of the presumption of mainstreaming, the Cabinet Secretary seemed to go further than that, referencing “a review of the implementation of additional support for learning, including where children learn”.
It is worth mentioning the solid work that the Education and Skills Committee have put into grappling with this question over a significant period. In addition, several voluntary organisations have worked effectively to keep the issue in the spotlight.
I have some slight concerns as to the length of time that a review might take, as it is not clear what form this is going to take, or over what timescale.
Indeed, as Mark McDonald MSP pointed out during the debate, the last call for a review into the presumption of mainstreaming was some three years ago. That review has not yet concluded! Draft revised guidance on the presumption of mainstreaming was out for consultation about a year ago. (You can read my response to the consultation on the presumption of mainstreaming guidance here.) The Scottish Government website still claims that updated guidance “will be published towards the end of 2018”.
It is to be hoped that the substantial work which has already been undertaken here means that the review process will not be a lengthy one.
As the motion is keen to point out, there is no intention here to depart from the principle of the presumption of mainstreaming, rather to consider how it is being implemented in practice. In my view this is the correct approach. It has always been accepted that mainstreaming would be more expensive than a system of special schools (cf. “Moving to Mainstream” report by Audit Scotland, 2003) – but it has been adopted as a principle because it is the right thing to do. The policy must be properly resourced as a matter of urgency. It is not a quick fix, but a long-term commitment which is required. The resources must also be spent on the right things. For example, simply throwing Pupil Support Assistants at the problem will not help, and may make things worse.
The motion also mentions the “more effective uptake of the provision of places in special schools and specialist units”. The Doran Review was commissioned by the Scottish Government and published in November 2012. In the six years which have passed since then little progress has been made in terms of the recommendations it made certainly insofar as they related to Scotland’s grant-aided special schools. A draft ten year strategy on the learning provision for children and young people with complex additional support needs was published in June 2017. My response to that consultation can be found here. The strategy has not yet been finalised, much less implemented (and it was supposed to cover the period 2017-2026). Meanwhile, the Scottish Government are paying millions of pounds a year to the grant-aided special schools, some of which are woefully under capacity, catering to just a handful of children. These national resources should be fully funded by Scottish Government and able to select their own pupils, just like the only mainstream grant-aided school is (Jordanhill School). This would mean that pupils would be accepted to these schools on the basis of need, rather than by who manages to negotiate the local authority / Tribunal system the best – a process that inevitably benefits children of more affluent parents. There should also be much more emphasis on outreach services to mainstream schools from these national centres of excellence, but this does not currently happen to any great extent. I advanced these arguments in my consultation response, but I am not holding my breath.
We also need to be careful that the review is not hijacked by those who oppose the principle of mainstreaming altogether. Some of the language used in the Scotsman coverage for example, is less than helpful – “extra burden on overstretched teachers”; “some ASN pupils could be disruptive”; “a daily struggle to control classes”.
Overall, the review offers an opportunity to press for a system which delivers the right support in the right place at the right time for pupils with additional support needs – we should take it, with enthusiasm and energy.