“Vital” teaching support is being removed from mainstream Edinburgh classrooms to plug staffing gaps in special schools, union leaders have warned.

The Herald understands individuals working for the capital’s Additional Support for Learning (ASL) service are being redeployed due to Covid-fuelled absence rates and insufficient supply cover.

It has sparked fears that specialist assistance for pupils with a range of vulnerabilities will be reduced. Worries are also growing over increased strain on mainstream schools as they bid to ensure education recovery.

Edinburgh’s ASL teams help children and young people who have additional needs connected to factors including autism, trauma and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Among other supported groups are bilingual learners, the visually impaired and pupils with dyslexia.

City leaders have said they will make “no apology” for doing everything possible to provide education and ensure classrooms stay open. They also stress the ASL service is peripatetic and can be sent to any Edinburgh school if extra assistance is required.

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However, union figures are “extremely concerned”. Alison Murphy, local association secretary for the EIS, said: “In Edinburgh, staff are being taken away from supporting one group of vulnerable pupils, in order to keep special schools open to support another group of vulnerable pupils.

“This decision is having to be made due to a combination of long-term pressures on staffing in special schools, exacerbated by Covid absences.”

Elaborating on the educational and wellbeing risks, she added: “Whilst we can see the immediate need, it is vital that this measure is in place for the shortest possible length of time.

“It removes absolutely vital support from pupils with a range of additional support needs, from the visually impaired and bilingual learners to those pupils struggling with mental health.

“This not only impacts on those pupils, and their families, but increases the strain on mainstream schools, who find themselves robbed of the specialist support they need at a time when they are already struggling.

“Further, having many different staff coming into special schools is not the best way to support pupils with complex needs, who require stability, and the security of staff with the specialist knowledge and training required to do this demanding work.”

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh's ASL staff help children with a wide range of additional needs.Edinburgh's ASL staff help children with a wide range of additional needs.

Ms Murphy called on the city council to look at other measures that might ensure “more stable staffing” in special schools.

“These include improving pay, terms and conditions for our Pupil Support Assistants; looking at a pool of permanent supply staff; reducing class sizes so that the pupils can be properly supported,” she said.

“We would also urge the council to talk to Scottish Government and Education Scotland to see if there are further things that could be done to support schools.

“One obvious measure would be to suspend the decision to resume inspection activity. If Education Scotland are serious about wanting to support schools with Covid-recovery, using those staff who would be carrying out inspections to help keep our special schools open would surely be of more immediate use.”

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City council bosses have defended the arrangements.

Councillor Ian Perry, Education Convener, said: “As a local authority we make no apology for doing everything we can to ensure all our young people, including those with a disability, receive the education they are entitled to.

“During the pandemic the education team has worked tirelessly to deliver teaching and learning, including during lockdown. The efforts extended during recent weeks are further evidence of the commitment of our staff to keep our schools open and our learners thriving.”

Councillor Alison Dickie, Vice-Convener, said: “Our ASL teams are a peripatetic service, which means that they can work in any of our schools to provide additional support if required and to ensure lessons can continue.

“Using other educational teams is not new and we will always ask schools to seek supply cover first and where these teachers are available then they are in schools. As part of our inclusion strategy, it’s also an opportunity to build the capacity of all of our staff to support learners with increasingly complex needs in different contexts.”

She added: “All of our children have a right to an education and whilst much work is being taken forward to address the pressures of staffing in special schools, using our ALS teams in times of need is helping us achieve this goal.”