Teachers have seen an increase in violent pupil behaviour and unexplained school absences since the emergence of Covid-19, according to reports that are fuelling fresh calls for investment in specialist education support. 

Leaders at the EIS union have warned the rise in incidents of aggression is particularly notable among P1 and P2 children. 

They said one staff member in the primary sector suffered a broken jaw and damage to an eye socket after being kicked in the face by a pupil. Another individual in a different school was punched by a P2 child and had a tooth knocked out.

The reports are being interpreted as a sign of distressed behaviour and anxiety brought on by the pandemic.

EIS figures also told MSPs that many children who did not require additional support before Covid are now manifesting significant needs. They said it would be essential to meet demand for dedicated classroom expertise in a range of areas and stressed the pressure was acute long before the disease took hold.  

Figures referenced by the Scottish Children’s Services Coalition (SCSC) show the number of full-time equivalent additional support needs (ASN) teachers in publicly funded schools fell 15.6 per cent from 3,389 to 2,860 between 2012 and 2020. Spend per pupil in this area slumped by nearly a quarter. 

READ MORE: Scottish teachers' unions reject 'insulting' pay offer from Cosla

The decreases came despite a 92.2 per cent jump in learners identified as having additional needs, with the figure standing at 226,838. 

Laurie Black, ASN committee convener at the EIS, was among experts giving evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee. She told MSPs: “You’re finding that practitioners are spending a lot of their time essentially firefighting really challenging violent and distressed behaviours, and that is of course going to have an impact on the ability for other children to learn and for their attainment.”

Ms Black also said teachers did not feel they were given sufficient support. She added: “I don’t want to sound like a broken record here but it really does come down to people on the ground. When you’ve had a violent incident, staff members do need some respite themselves. They may require medical attention. They might be quite distressed themselves – and then there’s also the issue of [them having] to then record those incidents almost immediately so that there’s an accurate reflection of those things... So there needs to be staff available then to come in and then work with that child to get them to a point where they are calm. And we’re just not seeing that at the moment.”

Michael Marra, Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson, highlighted an increase in unexplained, persistent absences from school. He added that it was "looking like maybe one in 100 children in Scotland... which is a very significant number".  

Responding to Mr Marra, Bruce Adamson, Scotland’s Commissioner for Children and Young People, said: “That’s a consistent pattern across Europe. It’s a consistent pattern across the UK as well.

“Anecdotally, there’s still high levels of anxiety around school. There’s significant numbers off at the moment [for] Covid-related [reasons] so that’s all kind of mixed in as well, and there’s still confusion around whether you’re supposed to be isolating and whether you’re not.”

READ MORE: SNP urged to act to avoid Scots exams strike 'chaos' over plans to scrap SQA

The remarks came as MSPs heard from organisations, among them Children in Scotland and the Centre for Excellence for Children's Care and Protection, about the impact of Covid on individuals with ASN and care experienced young people. Many issues were highlighted in written and oral evidence, including the vulnerability of autistic learners to developmental trauma, worries over inconsistent access to education hubs during lockdown, and the ways in which Covid has worsened existing structural inequalities. MSPs were told robust levels of investment in ASN services at all levels would be vital.

Fergus Ewing of the SNP acknowledged parents were all too often left to fight a battle for appropriate help. But he also said there were positives, adding: “Ninety-five per cent of children with additional support needs were educated at mainstream classes; teacher numbers have risen from 52,247 in 2019 to 53,400. 

“And perhaps even more important than that, the achievements of children with particular needs have been extraordinary as a result of the efforts of themselves, their teachers, their support assistants, and their families. I can see that pupils with additional support needs continued to achieve, with 89.6% of school leavers with additional support needs having a positive initial destination, nearly three quarters of [pupils with] additional support needs having left school with one pass or more at level 5 or better, and a staggering 91% of [pupils with] additional support needs with one or more qualifications at level 4.”