Children's charities have warned Education Secretary John Swinney that he will fail to close the attainment gap unless schools do more for pupils with special needs.

The Scottish Children's Services Coalition (SCSC) said nearly a quarter of pupils in Scottish schools, 153,000, are classed as having additional needs, but council cuts have seen a 10 per cent fall in specialist support staff in five years, from 19,332 to 17,408.

The latest school leavers figures show 6.4 per cent of those with additional support needs (ASN) left with no qualifications at or above SCVQ level two, and are twice as likely to be unemployed as other school leavers.

The average unemployment figure for school leavers is 6.3 per cent but this rises to 15.1 per cent for those with ASN, the coalition claimed.

The SCSC has written to Mr Swinney, warning that this group "desperately need extra attention" if he is to achieve first minister Nicola Sturgeon's aim of equal opportunity for all, and highlighting that children and young people with ASN disproportionately come from lower income families and areas of deprivation.

The SCSC, an alliance of independent and charity organisations working with vulnerable children and families, said the presumption that all pupils with ASN are taught in mainstream schools can only work if they are properly assessed for their ability to cope and schools have the necessary resources to help them. Alternatives should be offered if mainstream schools are not working out, it said.

A spokesperson for the SCSC commented: “Supporting children and young people with ASN is vital if we are to create an equal society and genuinely close the educational attainment gap once and for all. Resources have become so stretched that children and young people who require extra support and tailored services to their individual needs are simply being left behind.

“We must invest in early intervention to create an environment where if a child has ASN it will not impact on their ability to thrive and succeed in their education.”

In February, research by the SCSC prompted concern that pupils in some parts of the country might be missing out on support after revealing wide discrepancies between councils in relation to the numbers of children recorded as having ASN.

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “There has been a 10% increase in the number of young people with additional support needs leaving school with one or more qualifications at SCQF level 5 or better since 2011/12, and the number of school leavers with additional support needs going onto work, training or continuing in education went up by over 4% over the same timeframe.”

“In the last five years we have consistently reported progress in our reports on ASN to Parliament and will continue to work with agencies and organisations like SCSC's members to maintain and improve progress.”