Continuing our consideration of the ASL Review Report, the main section of the report begins with “Theme 1: Vision and visibility”. This covers two big issues. One is that there is no defining national agenda or narrative in relation to additional support needs, demonstrated perhaps by their absence from the National Improvement Framework. The second is that the term “additional support needs” continues to be misunderstood and misinterpreted, with the result that particular groups of children and young people who are covered by the law missing out on their rights in practice.
This section opens with the startling conclusion that the range of issues and conditions which entitle pupils to support is not well understood or recognised – “amongst even those closest to the implementation of the [Act]”. That is pretty shocking on two fronts. The latest statistics indicated that 30.9% of pupils are recorded as having additional support needs – Iand now it seems this may be a significant underestimate! Also, for legislation which has been in force for 15 years to be misunderstood by those applying it daily on such a central issue? Not ideal.
What is Success?
Under this heading, the report focuses in on the concept of “learning for life” – which it says is the language of the legislation. I’m not clear where this comes from. “skills for learning, skills for life” is phraseology used within Curriculum for Excellence. But “learning for life” is not a phrase used in the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 and, indeed a search of the excellent legislation.gov.uk site would indicate that the phrase is only used in Northern Irish regulations, such as, for example, the Education (Norther Ireland) Order 2006. Language of the legislation it may not be, but it is certainly a significant concept and one which is seen as being at the heart of additional support for learning.
The report highlights Articles 28 & 29 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and their references to a child’s “fullest potential” and “different forms of secondary education, including general and vocational”. It (correctly, in my view) takes this as pointing to “a broad and holistic definition of education” which in turn “encompasses a broad and holistic vision of learning”.
This is very much in line with the comments of the Inner House of the Court of Session in the case of City of Edinburgh Council v. Mrs MDN in which the Court approved the Additional Support Needs Tribunal’s approach in concluding that the child’s additional support needs “required to be stated in a more general, all encompassing and indeed “holistic” way rather than by endeavouring to separate out “educational support” on the one hand and “social work support” on the other.” Unfortunately, I still see attempts by education authorities and their representatives to draw just such a diving line.
It is thus important that the review concludes:
..a wider view, rooted in the concept of learning for life beyond the educational and academic, is crucial.
That wider view needs to encompass the child or young person’s lived experience, 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Their whole life outside the edges of school life into home, family .. and community.
Recognising and Measuring Achievement
The review notes that there is a focus, both in the media and in political discourse on exam results. This is damaging for the education system in Scotland as a whole. It is particularly damaging for those whose achievements are not measured in Higher results.
It notes “the absence of public celebration of other pathways and achievements” and, returning to the idea of learning for life, proposes “creating equally valued alternative pathways and ways of measuring individual progress.” There are already a number of alternative pathways – I think helping people to value them equally is going to be the tricky part.
At the outset of the report, we are told that this is a review of the implementation of the legislation, and not of the legislation itself. However, the report has concerns about the “needs focused language” of the Act and that this leads to a deficit model. I do feel this is slightly unfair on the legislation which – especially when read alongside the Code of Practice – is pretty clear on the breadth of the term and its inclusion of, for example, bilingual children and highly able children. Indeed, one of the first cases to reach the appeal courts under the Act involved a child whose additional support needs arose from her prodigious musical talent (RB v. Highland Council). The Code of Practice states that additional support needs may arise from the learning environment as readily as they may from family circumstances or a disability. I would argue that this is more of a practice issue than a legislative one.
The charge levelled by the review report is that the terminology of additional support needs “overlooks individual interests, ambitions, aspirations and talents as well as love and connection in relationships with family and friends.” Again, this feels too harsh. The legal definition of additional support needs explicitly incorporates the concepts referred to in Article 29 of the UNCRC. Whether these matters are overlooked in the classroom is hard for me to say, but the Tribunal is in little danger of overlooking the child’s individualism and relationships, if my experience is anything to go by.
Recommendation 1.1 Vision statement
A national, overarching Vision Statement for success for children and young people who have additional support needs must be developed by the end of 2020, with the full involvement of children and young people. …
The language used to describe children and young people with additional support needs, and the services that support them, must be changed. It should move away from describing children and young people as their condition and should not be solely focused on deficits.
The end of 2020 for a new Vision Statement seems ambitious, especially if there is going to be “full involvement of children and young people.”
As for the language point, I am not sure there is a huge issue in practice here. Describing children and young people as their condition is also more complex than it might first appear. I am aware of many young people for whom their condition is an important part of their identity, and so would happily describe themselves as “an Aspie girl” or a Deaf boy.
And then, not focusing on deficits is a fine line to tread as well. Parents raising concerns about their child’s needs and asking questions about whether sufficient support is in place are quite regularly told they are being “too negative” or “not positive enough” about their child. It is great to be aware of, and celebrate, a child’s strengths and abilities – but not at the expense of recognising areas of significant need. It is also great to see The Keys to Life, published by the Scottish Commission for Learning Disability, referenced here as well.
Recommendation 1.2 Measurement
The National Improvement Framework must be revised to ensure parity for additional support for learning.
The Milestones to Support Learners with Complex Additional Support Needs, introduced in 2018, along with the Curriculum review are positive reference points and should be taken into account.
The investment in Pupil Support Assistants must be measured for impact and improvement on children and young people’s experiences and achievements. Local authority and school managers must plan a strategy to review the deployment of Pupil Support Assistants, which takes account of recommendations from the current national research Education Endowment Fund (2018).
A plan must be developed and implemented to test how the National Performance Framework can be expanded to include achievement measures that go beyond the current narrow parameters of attainment and qualifications (based on the National Performance Framework values).
I am just going to go right ahead and agree with basically all of this.
The National Improvement Framework should absolutely be revised. The National Priorities in Education, which used to be a thing, included additional support for learning as one of five national priorities. The failure to include additional support for learning with the key priorities of the National Improvement Framework is disappointing – and revealing.
The Milestones document is indeed a positive reference point, and should be more widely known about.
A review of the effectiveness of Pupil Support Assistants is well worth doing. This type of support is very tangible and can become almost a “currency” of support with much angst and effort spent on how many hours of PSA support a child might get – often without due consideration being given to what they will be doing during those hours and to what end. In a worst case scenario, a PSA serves only to act as a barrier between pupil and teacher. It is interesting that the report specifically references the Educational Endowment Foundation research on Teaching Assistants. While pausing to note that TAs and PSAs are not necessarily 100% the same role, the summary of that research is that Teaching Assistants provide “low impact for high cost” – which is not very promising.
And, yes the National Performance Framework (not to be confused with the National Improvement Framework) should look to include broader indicators than just exam results (although in fairness it looks like indicators on confidence, resilience, engagement and participation are also used, or in development.