Where have all the support for learning teachers gone?

In 2009, the year the 2004 Additional Support for Learning (ASL) Act was amended, there were 3,402 support for learning teachers in Scottish schools whose main teaching subject was Additional Support Needs (ASN).

In 2014 this figure fell to 2,963 teachers in Scotland with ASN as their main subject and fell further in 2015 to 2,936.  A total of 22 out of 32 local authority areas experienced falls in ASN teachers since the national peak in 2009.  Of the few areas that now employ more ASN teachers, the increase in the numbers of ASN teachers is relatively small and there is no indication if these reflect an actual increase in ASN teacher time; or whether more part-time teachers are being employed.

In many areas, especially in primary schools, there has been a reduction in the number of ASN teacher hours provided in schools; so a report of the number of ASN teachers in an authority may be concealing an even greater reduction of the number of ASN teaching time available in schools.

Why is this happening in a country that has been praised worldwide for ASN legislation; whose Supporting Children’s Learning Code of Practice is the model now being adopted in other countries?

The short answer: austerity measures – education departments have been required to make substantial cuts – so school funding has been reduced.  The main expenditure in most schools is staffing, so cuts mean fewer teachers.  In order to meet the demands of the curriculum for excellence, class sizes must be kept down and a full range of subjects offered, so cuts are made first in the ‘extra’ services that do not affect these areas.  First to go is ASN teaching staff – often cut to a part-time teacher or dispensed with altogether and ASN duties reassigned to other staff.

The longer answer may also be rooted in funding – such as drastic cuts to in-service training and professional development budgets – making it impossible for authorities to fund teacher’s further study towards gaining ASN qualifications – and the Curriculum for Excellence – which appears to indicate that every child will be given the additional learning support they need by receiving extra attention from the class or subject teacher.

While this may be possible in primary schools for many children, learners whose ability to benefit from the education being provided is limited by underpinning issues – such as dyslexia or autism – will require provision that is additional to and different from that made for most children of the same age and stage.  This is the definition of ASN – so the ASN teacher should be trained to deliver the ‘different’ and ‘additional’ provision, whether it is different teaching methods or interventions designed to address specific issues – which are not part of the skill-set of most classroom teachers.

Some primary schools cope with austerity measures by cutting down on ‘extras’ like ASN support, music, drama and art –employing only part-time specialists or reallocating these areas to existing staff members whose classes may be ‘covered’ by senior staff.

Many primary class teachers now spend part of their week taking literacy and numeracy groups as designated by school leaders – and some may find themselves having to choose between taking on the role of an ASN teacher alongside classroom duties or moving to another school.

It has become practice in some education departments to fill vacant ASN posts in secondary schools with teachers who are ‘surplus’ to requirements in their original field.  The use of teachers who lack ASN qualifications has been of particular concern when Support for Learning leader (or manager) posts fall vacant.  A job description that formerly required additional qualifications in ASN – such as a level 3 diploma or a certificate in – e.g. Specific Learning Difficulties – was quietly dropped – allowing authorities to transfer ‘surplus’ guidance or subject leaders into these posts.

This cannot happen in other areas of the secondary curriculum – the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) requires teachers to hold subject qualifications before they can be registered to teach that subject in a Scottish school – but – apparently – any registered teacher can deliver support to meet individual additional needs.  While this is true – all teachers are expected to be able to identify and meet the needs of every child/young person they teach – but only in the context of their subject specialism and, in some cases, with help from ASN teachers and external specialists.   PE teachers are not expected to be able to identify and support an individual student’s literacy difficulties in the context of a PE lesson – but apparently, they gain the ability to do this if transferred into a vacant ASN post!

An ASN teacher is usually required to pick up from where the classroom teacher’s skills are not enough; to identify and – in some cases – assess – the underpinning issues causing difficulties in the curriculum – and to design and deliver interventions to resolve the issues identified.  In order to do this, training is essential – not only to learn about issues that may result in learners experiencing additional support needs in schools – but also about teaching approaches and interventions available to help meet these needs as they arise in the mainstream curriculum.

For pupils who require this additional support, the lack of access to qualified support is likely to impact on their studies and will risk them not reaching their potential – especially when formal exams are required.  It is all very well to point to the – apparent – success of the new National qualifications – but when assessment of these is through formal examinations rather than carried out internally, learners who have ASN may need reasonable adjustments to the arrangements for these in order to demonstrate their subject learning.  SQA offers a wide range of adjustments to exam arrangements – e.g. extra time allowances for those with slow reading, writing or processing skills – but they do require evidence of individual needs – and of a student’s usual way of working before permitting these adjustments.

When a school’s ASN team lacks training and expertise in identifying and gathering evidence of individual needs – and there is no apparent support being provided for subject work – then adjustments to exam arrangements (not to exam papers which remain the same for all) will be denied.  This not only discriminates against individuals who have unresolved ASN, it places them at an additional disadvantage when compared to other exam candidates.

The latest report to Parliament showed that pupils identified as having additional support needs have been gaining better qualifications at school and have been going into more positive destinations after leaving school.  How much better would these qualifications and positive destinations be if the 2009 levels of trained ASN teachers had been maintained?

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