IN 2003 the introduction of a new policy to ensure pupils with special needs had the right to be educated with their peers in a mainstream school was greeted with optimism.

The proposal to integrate children with additional support needs (ASN) into primary and secondary schools, rather than educating them separately in special schools, has the support of the United Nations on the grounds it is the right of every child to be educated in their local community regardless of physical disabilities, learning difficulties or social, emotional or behavioural problems.

However, while the presumption of mainstreaming still enjoys widespread support in principle, its practical delivery has been the focus of increasing concern from families and education staff because of a lack of resources, specialist staff and training.

In the 15 years since the presumption was enshrined in law there have been numerous cases where families have argued it has damaged their child's education rather than helping them.

One of those was Dania Cacace who, in September last year, highlighted the lack of support for her son Ronan.

Ronan, now in his early 20s, was just five when his primary school realised he needed extra support and, by the time he was 10, he had a diagnosis of autism, and later of the physical co-ordination condition dyspraxia. He also had dyscalculia, which meant he struggled with numbers.

He went to secondary school in East Dunbartonshire where his mother said he was bullied every day and classroom support was not put in place.

"At night he couldn’t sleep because he was so nervous about school the next day. Looking back it was quite scary. It’s had a long lasting impact on both of us," she said.

Another recent case involved Mark and Michelle Duncan, from Fife, whose 12-year-old son Brodie struggled to settle at school.

At the age of seven, Brodie was diagnosed with the hyperactivity disorder ADHD, which typically leads to difficulties paying attention and controlling behaviour. Further tests found he also had High Functioning Autism and Tourette’s syndrome.

Mrs Duncan said: “Brodie is highly intelligent, but can be a real handful and, while we always felt there was something different with him, it took a few years before he was diagnosed.

"His primary school was very good at supporting him, even when he ran away or lashed out, but we always felt the priority of the school was to contain his behaviour rather than teaching him."

These examples of families fighting for support merely scratch the surface of the issues hundreds of parents across Scotland are facing. Teachers and local authorities have also routinely complained of a lack of resources and warned the impact on classroom discipline and the education of other pupils is concerning.

Last year, a major report highlighted the "terrifying damage" being done to vulnerable pupils as a result of the policy. A consultation on new guidance for schools detailed a raft of problems including violence and disruption due to lack of support staff.

One teacher said: “The damage being done is terrifying and our children are being let down by us regardless of how hard we try in class.

“Safety has been a huge concern. We work in a mainstream setting with children who are regularly violent. This is not inclusive for the other children in the class as lessons have to be stopped regularly and the classroom evacuated.”

Another teacher said: “There are a handful of children who are now influencing the entire building’s mood and learning experience. They shouldn’t be allowed to make other children feel scared coming to school and staff should not be completing violent incident forms on a daily basis.”

In December, an investigation by Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner found challenging pupils were being routinely restrained or locked up in classrooms because there wasn't enough support staff available.

Just weeks earlier, a survey of nearly 1,500 parents with vulnerable children raised significant concerns over the ability of schools to cope, with more than one third of parents saying their children had been unlawfully excluded in the last two years, with 22 per cent saying it had happened multiple times a week.

This deluge of negative experiences finally forced the hand of the Scottish Government, who announced a review of the policy in January following political pressure from the Scottish Conservative Party.

Officials have pointed to increasing resources with councils spending £610 million on additional support for learning in 2016/17, up from £584m in 2015/16. But the increase comes at a time when the number of ASN pupils is rapidly expanding.

Figures published last month show the overall number of ASN pupils has risen to an all-time high of more than 199,000 compared to 118,000 in 2012.

The rise comes at a time when the number of specialist teachers has fallen from 3,248 in 2012 to just 2,733. Behaviour support staff and educational psychologists are also decreasing.

The Scottish Government now accepts the concerns raised cannot continue to be ignored. Although there is no intention to depart from the principle of the presumption of mainstreaming, there is an acceptance its implementation needs to be examined.

“We have listened to the experiences of children and families about getting the support that they need," a spokeswoman for the Scottish Government said.

Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute of Scotland teaching union, argues the status quo is no longer tenable.

"We don’t need a review of the policy to know there are simply not enough teachers or support staff to meet children’s needs, that specialist expertise is undervalued, that class sizes are too big, that vital mental health support services are insufficiently resourced and that teachers are not being well enough supported in terms of violent incidents.

"For children to receive the best education possible and for teachers to be safe and happy at work we need a marriage of excellent policy and the investment needed to realise its ambitions."

The need for increasing resources is a recurring theme from a number of other key players.

Sally Cavers, head of inclusion with the Children in Scotland charity, said in too many cases appropriate support was not being experienced by the children the policy was designed for.

"Tension and disagreement about support for ASN pupils mainly focuses on lack of access to specialists. Other services experiencing decline have included educational psychology, speech and language therapy and local authority support teams such as behavioural support. Fundamentally, this is about a resourcing issue and a political choice," she said.

Dorry McLaughlin, chief executive at Scottish Autism, said there was a damaging assumption autistic children could adapt to a school setting, despite evidence they often experienced "debilitating and intolerable levels of stress".

“When children are not coping in these environments this can be expressed in their behaviour and, over time, lead to the school seeing the child as a problem," she said.

"We also hear from families that autistic children who appear to cope at school will often experience significant challenges at home as a result of the stress incurred at school. There needs to be a serious focus on resources and capacity in schools."

Those who work in the remaining special schools will also be taking a keen interest in the review at a time when the number of these institutions has declined from 155 in 2012 to 133 in 2018.

Stuart Jacob, director of Falkland House School, near Glenrothes, a member of the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition which caters for boys with autism, said: "However many of those with ASN currently supported in mainstream schools would have their needs better supported in special schools or units?

"When we talk of inclusion, this group are often more excluded in mainstream schooling than they would be in a specialist environment. Parents can, however, face a real battle to have their child placed in such specialist facilities, especially given local authority budget pressures."

Concern over this battle between parents and councils is keenly felt by legal experts who specialise in representing families with vulnerable children when their cases come to tribunal stage for arbitration.

Jennifer Barr, a solicitor from the education law unit at Govan Law Centre, in Glasgow, said part of the problem was that parents were often in the dark about their rights.

"Even if parents are aware they often don’t know where to go to secure additional support. Schools need to make sure parents fully understand what those rights are and how they can go about securing extra support well before cases get to the stage of a tribunal," she said.

There are also concerns over the fact the Scottish Government is embarking on yet another review just three years after a similar one was commissioned - the findings of which have not yet been published.

Education lawyer Iain Nisbet, of Cairn Legal, said he hoped the "substantial work" already undertaken would mean the review process was relatively short.

He added: "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. Simply throwing pupil support assistants at the problem will not help, and may make things worse."

Amongst the deep-seated concerns over the effectiveness of deliver most of those who work in the sector are still convinced the policy is the right one.

Dr Ines Alves, a lecturer in inclusive education at Glasgow University, said the progress made in Scottish schools was significant, internationally recognised and improving.

"In the past, children with any kind of disability or physical impairment were sent to a special school. Now these children routinely work alongside their peers and we have young people who, with the right support, have gone to university or into employment who have achieved much more than would have been possible a few decades ago.

"We can’t return to the segregation and labelling of decades ago. There is so much evidence of schools doing great work in challenging circumstances and we must continue on the road of social justice and inclusion."

A key concern of parents has been the deliberate withholding of legally-binding support plans by councils so they can avoid having to commit resources to vulnerable pupils.

While not all children with additional support needs (ASN) require a co-ordinated support plan (CSP) it has an important status because it is a legal document requiring councils to ensure pupils receive appropriate support.

In particular, the documents are vital for pupils with more severe issue who require support from a number of different services such as education, social work or health.

Before the Additional Support for Learning Act in 2004, about two per cent of pupils in Scotland had a statutory support plan and, when the CSP was introduced, the Scottish Government promised there would be no decline in the proportion of children receiving them.

However, since 2011 there has been a year-on-year reduction in the number of CSPs opened, with the most recent figures showing a drop from 3,448 to just 1,986 last year.

Worryingly, previous research has shown pupils from less advantaged backgrounds are more likely to be identified as having ASN, but are less likely to have a CSP because middle class parents are more likely to have the resources and resilience to pursue one even when councils are resistant.

Professor Sheila Riddell, chair of inclusion at Edinburgh University, said if the trend continued support plans could virtually disappear.

She said: "Councils are largely unconcerned about the decline in the use of CSPs, regarding them as cumbersome and time consuming.

"Local authorities argue they prefer to use other types of plan despite the fact these are not specifically education documents and have no directly enforceable rights associated with them.

"Parents, on the other hand, believe statutory plans are important to ensure children’s needs are properly assessed, recorded and reviewed."

Mrs Riddell said there were "mixed messages" from the Scottish Government on the importance of CSPs.

She added: "At a time when budgets are being squeezed, a number of changes are needed. The qualification criteria for a CSP should be simplified, so that a child should be entitled to a statutory support plan if they require support not normally available in school.

"Secondly, there should be training for local authority and school staff so there is better understanding of the system in general, including statutory entitlements."