The Scottish Government’s policy for mainstreaming has been questioned by a Holyrood committee which found an “intolerable gap” between the support that students pupils with additional support needs (ASN) require and what they are receiving.

The Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee took evidence from parents, young people, teachers and support staff which told of consistently negative experiences in mainstream schools which have had a “detrimental impact” on students with ASN.  

In its report on the inquiry, the committee unanimously agreed that the principle of mainstreaming is sound, but that the Scottish Government is failing to implement it properly and that there has always been a gap between the policy’s ambitions and the real-life experiences of teachers and young people.   

Sue Webber MSP, Convener of the Education, Children and Young People Committee, said that children and families with ASN are facing an “intolerable” situation.

“During our inquiry, we were extremely concerned to hear about negative experiences of additional support for learning provision, the educating of children and young people in mainstream schools and the detrimental impact this has had on some pupils, their parents and carers, and teachers and support staff.

“Things must change.

“The Scottish Government and local authorities have been repeatedly warned about the consequences of failing to improve support for children with additional support needs.”

The committee cited concerns over miscommunications between parents and local authorities, with parents often not understanding what ASN resources are available and how to access them for their children.


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The committee said that pupils do not need a diagnosis to receive ASN support from a local authority, but was “saddened to hear of the difficulties experienced by parents and carers… and the misconception that a formal diagnosis was not only desirable, but necessary in order to obtain support.”

“The Committee was alarmed to hear there was strong evidence to suggest that the majority of ASN pupils are not having their needs met,” the report said.

“The Committee agrees with the policy intention behind the 2000 Act's presumption of mainstreaming.

“However, the gap between the policy intention and how this has been implemented in practice is intolerable.

“The Scottish Government, working alongside Education Scotland and COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities), should act as a matter of urgency to address the issues highlighted via this inquiry to ensure that all pupils with ASN can enjoy their right to an education and have a positive experience at school.”

Lack of resources, improper facilities to accommodate pupils with ASN such as autism, and a dwindling number of staff specialising in ASN were all cited during the inquiry as reasons why young people are often “forced to fail” in mainstream schools.

These concerns come at a time when the number of pupils with ASN has reached an all-time high. More than one-third of Scottish pupils have at least one ASN and the overall total has nearly doubled in the past decade.

During the same 10-year period, the number of specialist ASN support staff has dwindled to a ratio of roughly one for every 89 ASN pupils.

Meanwhile, there is increasing demand for places at specialist schools but many councils are struggling to cope. The government’s mainstreaming policy is based 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.

In many areas, however, the special circumstance exceptions are being overruled by the reality that specialist schools do not have enough room.

School Leaders Scotland (SLS) told the Holyrood inquiry that there are increasing numbers of ASN pupils in mainstream schools because specialist schools have no more spaces available.

This is creating a “poorer” education for young people with ASN, SLS said, and in many local authorities has forced legal battles between parents and councils to appeal placement decisions.

The SLS concluded that the mainstreaming policy is “hard to argue against” but that it is “problematic if not properly resourced” and “more often than not, unattainable” given current resource levels.

The Education, Children and Young People said that it was concerned with the long waiting times for specialist placements the lack of clarity for parents in terms of knowing what type of ASN provision is available at mainstream schools in each local authority and recommended that the government and local authorities update their Additional Support for Learning Action Plans.

The Herald asked the Scottish Government for its response to accusations that it has failed to properly implement school mainstreaming policy. In light of recent comments, we also asked if education secretary Jenny Gilruth still supports mainstreaming in light of the latest findings, and whether funding is available to help councils meet the additional support needs of pupils.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government is clear that children and young people should learn in an environment which best suits their needs, whether that is in a mainstream or special school setting.

“Specialist staff and pupil support staff play a vital role in supporting pupils with additional support needs, which is why spending on additional support for learning reached a record high of £926 million last year. The total number of support staff in Scotland rose to 17,330 and there were also 2,898 teachers across all sectors with additional support needs as their main subject in 2023, an increase on recent years.

“Ministers will consider the report in full, including the recommendations of the committee, and provide a formal response in due course.”