The total number of Scottish students receiving additional support for learning has risen yearly for the past decade.

And within those measurements, numbers have increased in 22 of the Scottish Government's 23 tracked reasons for additional support. The only category to report a decline is "learning disability," but children's services experts have said that is more a matter of terminology than of changing needs.

The number of students with additional support needs (ASNs) has increased over the years for multiple reasons, each with a separate set of implications.

First, experts have said that reporting is regularly improving. This suggests that schools are better at identifying students' needs and ensuring they are logged and reflected in the national data. 

But if the numbers are growing steadily every year simply because we are bringing more children with ASN into the system, then that suggests every year children go unsupported. And based on the numbers available through the census data, that would mean thousands of children attend school every year who need additional support but are not getting it.

The alternative is not much better. If the growth of ASN is down to a genuine increase in learning difficulties, physical and emotional disorders, and other difficulties among young children, then there is a much deeper societal issue at play. 

Read more: Have Scottish schools learned to accept autistic pupils?

It may seem impossible for students with additional needs to fly under the radar at school, but the wide range of reasons for ASN shows otherwise.

Of the 23 recognised ASN categories, some are more commonly known than others. Autistic spectrum disorders (ASD), dyslexia, and audiovisual impairments are easily recognisable – even if not always easily diagnosed – as reasons for needing additional support.

Other categories seem less obvious, but the data proves they are no less significant. The numbers of students receiving additional support for interrupted learning, family issues, substance misuse and young carers have all nearly doubled since 2013. 

Each of these categories includes a wide range of needs caused by an even more comprehensive range of contributing factors.

But they all contribute to a growing debate over the best way to support ASN pupils. During a recent investigation by the Scottish Parliament's Education and Children's Services Committee, sector leaders and politicians asked questions about Scotland's presumption of mainstreaming for ASN pupils. 

According to this policy, ASN pupils should only attend special schools in exceptional circumstances. Otherwise, they should be supported at mainstream schools. However, there are growing concerns that mainstream schools aren't adequately meeting the needs of these young people. 

Education Secretary Jenny Gilruth renewed support for the government's mainstreaming policy, calling it "the right approach" to giving all pupils a fair opportunity. But even as she spoke in favour of the concept, she added that schools need to improve their accommodation of students with ASN significantly.

Read more: 'I still believe in mainstreaming': Jenny Gilruth on school additional support needs

Underfunding is only part of the issue; there are worries that school buildings can't support ASN pupils. Depending on a child's range of needs, they can be too loud, big, crowded, empty, or inaccessible. 

In many cases, it's up to more than the school system to address these issues. As Ms Gilruth also said in her comments to the Holyrood hearings on additional support for learning, supporting ASN pupils takes a holistic approach.

Solutions will need to come from outside the "silo" of education spending. But money is tight across the board. In previous years, when major cuts were discussed at council meetings, there was often a sudden windfall at the eleventh hour. 

That doesn't seem likely this year. Councils are struggling to balance budgets without the ability to raise taxes. Local authorities in England have gone bust, and there are similar concerns in Scotland

As a leading Glasgow councillor told The Herald when asked about sweeping plans to cut teacher numbers in the city, "There was just no other way to slice it this year."

It may be up to school staff to find ways to support ASN pupils by doing more with less. But as one autistic student poignantly told The Herald, school isn't always a safe haven, even with a full complement of support.