Following a months-long inquiry on additional support for learning, Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth told Holyrood's education committee that she still backs the government policy of mainstreaming for pupils with additional support needs (ASN).

But that does not mean that everything is as it should be.

The Education and Children's Services Committee heard evidence throughout four sessions, including testimony from union leaders, specialist care providers and local authorities.

Although the hearings touched on financial, wellbeing and educational concerns, one question provided a throughline: Should mainstream education continue to be the default option for all students?

In 2019, the Scottish Government published guidance on the "presumption to provide education in a mainstream setting", except in certain cases where a student would be better served at a special school. This was meant to reinforce a Scottish Government policy that dates back to a 2003 add-on to the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act 2000.

The presumption of mainstreaming forms the backbone of an inclusive approach to education, and it has also dictated how – and where – ASN pupils are taught. This has had knock-on effects on the funding, staffing and even the shape of Scottish schools because students with additional needs also need additional resources and specific environments.

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But despite the lofty goal of inclusivity, stakeholders told the education committee that there is a significant gap between policy and reality. Teachers, parents and carers described mainstream schools that are underfunded, understaffed and unable to provide the full range of additional support for learning that pupils are entitled to.

As one teacher with over 20 years in an additional support for learning setting explained, mainstream can only work with a "robust support network" in place.

"Otherwise, they are being set up to fail and additional pressure is put on themselves, parents, the schools, CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services)."

The Herald: The Scottish Parliament Education and Children's Services Committee heard evidence on the successes and failures of additional support for learning in the country.The Scottish Parliament Education and Children's Services Committee heard evidence on the successes and failures of additional support for learning in the country.

Mary Dunsmuir, president of the ASN Tribunal – a body that handles challenges to the type of educational support pupils are receiving – told the committee that the presumption of mainstreaming is the most common reason that local authorities refuse parent requests for a place at a special school.

But that should not be a valid reason for refusal, she said. 

"If we look at mainstream education from the perspective of inclusion, our evidence shows that a bias in favour of one type of school will not necessarily be interpreted as offering the most inclusive environment."

During her comments to the education committee on Wednesday, Ms Gilruth said that, despite the concerns, she still backs the policy of inclusivity as the best approach for children in Scotland

"I still believe in mainstreaming. I think it is the right approach."

But, she added, improvements need to be made and she is not convinced that the system has drawn the line between special and mainstream schools in the right place.

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Finding where that line should be could be a matter of urgency. Willie Rennie MSP asked on Wednesday whether there is a danger of pupils with ASN being pitted against their classmates in Scotland's "drive towards inclusion."

"Because of the huge demands on teachers' and assistants' time it means that others lose out... I'm just worried that if the situation is left to fester, it could create more of a division."

The Herald: MSP Willie Rennie described the frustration and anger that parents feel about their children's additional needs going unmet.MSP Willie Rennie described the frustration and anger that parents feel about their children's additional needs going unmet.

Recent data shows that teachers in mainstream schools are likely responsible for more ASN pupils than ever before. The number of staff who specialise in ASN is falling, but the number of pupils with additional needs has doubled since 2013.

According to written evidence submitted to the inquiry, Edinburgh, Glasgow South Lanarkshire, Scottish Borders, and more councils have seen a clear increase in the number of special school placing requests in recent years.

The Herald recently submitted a series of Freedom of Information requests to local authorities, asking for the number of requests received, and the number successful, over the past decade.

Many did not respond. But the data from Edinburgh City Council shows a steady increase in requests, with a success rate that has decreased year-on-year.

In 2013, 89 of 143 requests for special school placement were successful in Edinburgh. In 2023, 112 out of 254 total requests were granted.

In the evidence provided to the additional support for learning inquiry, councils described several barriers to providing support for pupils.

South Ayrshire Council identified a gap between the "volume of need versus the resource and availability of a skilled workforce."

Similarly, North Ayrshire Council representatives said that funding "does not match" parent expectations. As a result, children's rights to certain support go unmet because of a council's financial constraints.

In describing the local barriers to ASN provision, Falkirk Council's submission put it bluntly: cash.

"Our children with Autism and neurodivergent learning needs are increasing and they require reduced sensory learning environments and access to small group teaching.

'This requires capital funding."

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Plugging the ASN funding gap will likely be key to offering adequate support for learning, and could also help the Scottish Government meet its lofty goal of closing the attainment gap.

To this end, Ms Gilruth told the education committee that there needs to be a move away from isolating ASN funding. It is currently isolated in education budgets, but she said multiple sectors have a responsibility and benefit from young people receiving adequate support.

"This has been a key theme of the committee's evidence that this cannot be just about education."

Much of the evidence presented to the inquiry was new, but the story it told was familiar.

Many stakeholder submissions referenced parents who have been feeling frustrated and left out for years.

Throughout the inquiry, there were references to the 2020 Morgan Review of additional support for learning legislation. 

Its key findings neatly summarise the Holyrood inquiry that wrapped up on Wednesday: there is a "significant disconnect" between the goals of the legislation and classroom experience; meeting the needs of ASN is dominating school focus and time, but that extra effort is going unrecognised; children are not valued at an equal level; and parents are frustrated that they are not being listened to.