Additional support for learning: experiences of pupils and those that support them

Findings from qualitative research.

1. Introduction


1.1 This report sets out findings from qualitative research to explore the experiences of children and young people of additional support for learning, as well as the experiences of those who support them.

Research aims

1.2 The research aims to inform policy decisions on additional support for learning through delivering an understanding of the experiences of additional support for learning for:

  • children and young people;
  • parents;
  • teachers, support staff and school leadership; and
  • education authorities and educational psychologists.

1.3 The main focus of the research was on exploring the views of children and young people, to ensure young people's experiences are understood and can inform policy decisions. It aimed to:

  • gather in depth information about how children with additional support needs (ASN) are finding the system and whether their families feel their needs are being met;
  • identify what works well in relation to inclusion and what gets in the way;
  • provide an indication of whether the correct balance is being struck between placing children in mainstream schools, special schools and mainstream schools with specialist units - including exploring how included children and families are in that decision making process; and
  • look across all provision and find out whether children are having good, inclusive experiences that support their learning and sense of wellbeing.


Policy context

1.4 Excellence and equity in education are core national priorities for the Scottish Government. Over the past 15 years, the Scottish Government has facilitated a move towards more child centred approaches, worked to reform services to deliver better outcomes for children and young people and placed a strong focus on addressing inequalities in educational outcomes.

1.5 In Scotland, all children have the right to education which is directed to the development of their personality, talents and mental and physical abilities to their fullest potential. This principle was adopted by the Standards in Scotland's Schools etc Act, and reinforced by the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004 and Curriculum for Excellence, which reflects the way different learners progress.

1.6 Every child of school age has the right to:

  • have any additional support needs identified, met and reviewed in order for them to benefit from school education - within reasonable public expenditure; and
  • be educated alongside their peers in a mainstream school, unless there is a good reason for not doing so, determined by the exceptions defined in legislation.

1.7 Overall, consideration must be given to the child's education needs, ASN and wider wellbeing.

1.8 Education authorities must have due regard, so far as is reasonably practical of the views of the child or young person in decisions that affect them. This is set out in the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004, amended in 2009 and 2016. This Act focused strongly on empowering parents, carers and young people, and the most recent amendments through the Education Scotland Act 2016 further extend the rights available to children aged 12 and over, who are able to use them. This is to ensure that children and young people's voices are heard.

Defining additional support needs

1.9 The term 'additional support needs' was introduced into law by the Education (Additional Support for Learning) Act 2004. It used the term 'additional support needs' to apply to children or young people who need additional support to help them make the most of their school education and be fully involved in their learning. This support could be long or short term. Additional support falls broadly into three overlapping headings:

  • approaches to learning and teaching;
  • support from personnel; and
  • provision of resources.

1.10 The factors leading to requirements for additional support are varied, but fall broadly into four key areas:

  • the learning environment;
  • family circumstances;
  • disability or health need; and
  • social and emotional factors.

1.11 The Act states that all looked after children are deemed to have additional support needs until they are assessed otherwise. The term additional support needs therefore covers a broad, wide ranging definition.

Children in Scotland with additional support needs

1.12 The Scottish Government gathers statistics on the number of children and young people with ASN and publishes these annually. Figures from 2017[1] highlight that there are approximately 184,000 children and young people in Scotland with ASN. This is more than a quarter of pupils (26.6%). Most (60%) are boys. Around 35,000 have an Individualised Education Programme; around 32,000 have a Child's Plan; and around 17,000 are assessed or declared as disabled. Many have 'other' ASN which could include temporary or short term support needs.

1.13 There has been a substantial increase in the number of children with recorded ASN in Scotland. Between 2010 and 2016 there was an increase of 153 per cent - in some part due to changes in recording practices, with the range of young people recorded as having ASN becoming broader. The rates of needs recorded also vary substantially between different local authorities, with each using different approaches to record and define ASN, with different factors influencing how they are recorded[2].

Education options

1.14 Almost all children with ASN learn, at least some of the time, in mainstream schools. There are a number of different education options. Approaches vary by local authority and school, but the main options include:

  • Education in a mainstream school - There are approximately 2,300 mainstream schools in Scotland. Children with ASN at mainstream schools may attend mainstream classes and receive targeted support in the classroom or enhanced support when extracted from the classroom - in individual or group settings. Children at mainstream schools may also attend ASN classes, ASN rooms or specialist units within the school, specialist units at other mainstream schools, or special schools for part of their school week.
  • Education in a special school - These are schools wholly or mainly for children with ASN. This could be a local authority special school, a unit within a mainstream school which is wholly for children with ASN, an independent special school or a grant aided special school. There are approximately 149 local authority special schools in Scotland, 40 independent schools and 7 grant aided special schools. However, the way in which local authorities define 'special school' varies - and there is no national list of all mainstream schools which contain units specifically for children with ASN.
  • Flexible provision - In some cases, children are offered the option of a mixed approach, involving some time in a special school and some time in a mainstream school. For older children, this can also involve time at college or in vocational settings.

1.15 The education options offered in the local authority areas and schools which participated in this research are explored in detail in Chapter Two.

Evidence about outcomes for children with additional support needs

1.16 Evidence gathered by the Scottish Government shows that outcomes for children with ASN are improving. For example:

  • From 2011 to 2016, there has been a rise in qualifications achieved, positive destinations and attendance of pupils with ASN.
  • A national review by Education Scotland[3] found that teachers were getting better at identifying children in need of additional support, and the type and level of support required. It found that children with ASN were performing well at certain levels.
  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission's five year review of inequalities in Scotland[4] found that the gap in attainment of both children with ASN and looked after children narrowed between 2010 and 2015.

1.17 However, a lower percentage of children with ASN achieve the expected Curriculum for Excellence level compared to children with no ASN[5]. Education Scotland's review[6] found that there remained much scope for improvement, and the EHRC review found that attainment of children with ASN, particularly looked after children, remained below that of other pupils.

1.18 A national conversation facilitated by ENABLE Scotland[7] explored the reality of education experiences for children and young people with learning disabilities. The national conversation involved feedback from 116 young people who have learning disabilities, as well as a wider group of parents, carers and education staff. It found that only 49 per cent of children and young people involved in the research felt that they were achieving their full potential at school. Most (60%) said they felt lonely at school. And parents indicated that they felt they did not receive enough information, and felt the experience was stressful.

Background to this research

1.19 The Education and Skills Committee of the Scottish Parliament explored how additional support for learning was working in practice, reporting in May 2017. This review found that evidence suggested that more children are in mainstream schools than are currently best served there. It recommended action to explore experiences of children with ASN in mainstream education, and to understand the impact of resource issues on the ability to meet needs effectively. It also highlighted the link between supporting young people with ASN to achieve and attain, and closing the attainment gap.

1.20 In July 2017, the Cabinet Secretary responded outlining a commitment to researching the experiences of children with ASN in mainstream education. The research would explore the experiences of children and young people with ASN, as well as experiences of parents, teachers, support staff, educational psychologists, the school leadership, education authorities and their partners in relation to additional support for learning. This report sets out findings of this research, which was commissioned by the Scottish Government in 2017/18.

1.21 The research took place at the same time as a Scottish Government consultation about new guidance on the presumption of mainstreaming, which ran from November 2017 to February 2018. The consultation explored the vision for inclusive education in Scotland; the key features of inclusion; the entitlements and options available; and the ways to deliver inclusion in practice.


1.22 The research involved research in 18 schools in six areas across Scotland. It involved the following key stages.

Identification of focus local authority areas

1.23 The research aimed to involve local authority officers and schools in six focus areas. These areas were identified independently by Research Scotland, and selected to ensure a mix of:

  • geographical type - with two predominately urban, two predominately rural and two mixed authorities;
  • level of deprivation - with two with high levels of socio-economic deprivation; two with middling levels; and two with low levels; and
  • level of recorded ASN - with two with average levels of recorded ASN, two above and two below.

1.24 A matrix was set up including each local authority, and they were sorted into a band to reflect these characteristics. Research Scotland identified six local authorities which provided a mix of these factors, while also being in a range of locations across the country.

1.25 Permission to undertake the research was then sought from the Director of Education or equivalent in each area. All six focus local authority areas granted permission for the research to be undertaken.

Identification of focus schools

1.26 The research aimed to involved three schools in each of the six focus local authority areas, a total of 18 schools. A matrix was developed setting out the profile of the schools to be involved. This included:

  • an equal split of primary and secondary schools;
  • a mix of types of schools - with around half being mainstream schools identified by the authority as having an ASN base or enhanced support for children with ASN; a quarter being mainstream schools and a quarter being special schools; and
  • a mix of levels of deprivation.

1.27 Schools were then approached to seek permission from the head teacher to undertake the research. All 18 schools provided permission. However, one school later pulled out due to staffing and capacity issues. An alternative school of a similar type within the same local authority area was identified as a replacement.

1.28 The final profile of schools involved was:





8 Primary

5 Mainstream

6 with less than 25% of pupils in the 20% most deprived datazones

6 in large urban areas

7 Secondary

9 Mainstream with enhanced support

5 with between 25 and 50% of pupils in the most deprived datazones

7 in other urban areas

3 Schools for both primary and secondary

4 Special schools

4 with 50 to 75% of pupils in the most deprived datazones

3 in accessible small towns or rural areas

2 with 75% or more of pupils in the most deprived datazones

2 in remote small towns or rural areas

*Level of deprivation in one mainstream primary was unknown

1.29 It is worth noting that in the six focus local authority areas, often schools with specialist services for children with ASN were in more urban areas, when compared with the overall geographical profile of the area.

1.30 The schools ranged in size from 24 pupils to over 1,100. The four special schools included:

  • two schools which catered for a range of ASN;
  • one school which catered for complex social, emotional and behavioural needs; and
  • one school which catered for a range of complex ASN.

1.31 The nine mainstream schools with specialist or enhanced support for children with ASN included:

  • five schools with enhanced provision to meet a range of ASN;
  • one school with specialist support around visual impairment;
  • one school with specialist support around hearing impairment;
  • one school with specialist support for autism; and
  • one school with specialist support for communication and wider learning needs.

1.32 Some of the mainstream schools not identified by the local authority as having specialist or enhanced support for children with ASN did include support such as nurture rooms, ASN support bases, pupil support bases and ASN classes.

Interviews with local authority officers

1.33 The research involved two local authority officers in each of the six local authority areas. Local authority education contacts were invited to identify suitable officers, with a suggestion that this should involve education officers responsible for ASN, and educational psychologists. Each area identified two contacts, and a total of 12 telephone interviews were undertaken. This included seven education officers and five educational psychologists.

Interviews with pupils

1.34 The research involved 100 face to face interviews with pupils. It was agreed that the research would involve children and young people from p1 to S6, with a range of ASN. Targets were not set for the specific type or nature of ASN. The aim was to achieve a broad mix, without being too prescriptive.

1.35 Each school was asked to identify six pupils to participate in face to face discussions, and gain parental consent for this discussion. Schools were given clear guidance about the mix of pupils who should be involved. Each researcher had an in-depth discussion with teachers at the school about the profile of pupils, and how to achieve a broadly representative mix. While most schools were able to identify six pupils and gain parental consent, a small number of pupils were unable to participate on the days the researcher was present in the school due to illness or other absence, issues with schools receiving parental consent, or pupils changing their mind about participation on the day based on how they were feeling that day.

1.36 Because of data protection laws, schools were required to take the lead in identifying potential pupils and contacting parents to gain consent. Schools were extremely helpful and dedicated significant time to this process, which often involved a lot of follow up and reminders.

1.37 The interviews with pupils lasted between 15 minutes and an hour. The length, format and structure of interview was amended to suit the needs of each pupil. The researchers liaised closely with schools to identify appropriate communication methods, styles of question and length of discussion.

1.38 The profile of the 100 pupils who took part in the research included:


Type of provision

49 primary age pupils - from p2 to p7

27 pupils at mainstream schools

51 secondary age pupils - from S1 to S6

52 pupils at mainstream schools with enhanced provision or bases

21 pupils at special schools

1.39 Despite encouraging schools to identify a range of ages, none of the schools identified a primary one pupil to participate in the research. The youngest children to participate in the research were primary two.

1.40 The pupils involved in the research had a range of ASN. The broad needs are summarised below. However, it is important to recognise that often pupils had multiple needs, and needs were not always clearly assessed and defined. This information is provided simply as an overview of the range of young people involved in the research. The range of needs involved included:

  • social, emotional and behavioural needs - often linked to childhood trauma, broken school experiences or wider anxiety, depression, bereavement or mental health issues;
  • autistic spectrum disorder;
  • developmental delay, learning delays or learning difficulties;
  • communication and language needs - including dyslexia and English as an additional language;
  • visual impairment;
  • hearing impairment;
  • health issues or physical disabilities requiring additional support;
  • looked after children or children in kinship care;
  • attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; and
  • gender transition.

1.41 These needs all overlapped, with children involved in the research having multiple needs across these categories.

1.42 Sixty-four pupils were boys or young men and 36 were girls or young women. While across Scotland more boys and young men have recorded ASN than girls or young women, the research sought to ensure that all perspectives were included. It is worth noting that some of the schools or bases included in the research had either very few or no young women at the school or support base.

Interviews with school staff

1.43 A total of 54 school staff members were involved in the research. This included:

  • 19 members of school leadership teams;
  • 17 class teachers; and
  • 18 support workers.

Interviews with parents and carers

1.44 A total of 39 parents or carers were involved in the research. This included 23 parents or carers of primary age pupils and 16 parents or carers of secondary age pupils. Nine had children at mainstream schools; 22 had children at mainstream schools with some form of enhanced support or base; and 8 had children at special schools.

1.45 Parents or carers were identified by schools, as part of the process for gaining consent for children and young people to participate in the research. Parents or carers were asked whether they would also be prepared to take part in a telephone discussion. Parents were offered £20 to recognise the value of their time and as a contribution to meet any childcare costs incurred as a result.

Analysis and reporting

1.46 After the fieldwork stage, all of the information gathered was pulled together and analysed using a process of manual thematic coding. This involves researchers carefully collating responses, reading these and organising them based on emerging themes.

1.47 Copies of the discussion guides used with local authority officers, pupils, parents and school staff are available as Annex One.

Interpreting the results

1.48 This report sets out findings from a qualitative research project. Qualitative research can provide an in-depth understanding of particular experiences, views, choices and behaviours. It allows probing of key issues as they emerge, and discussion in a semi-structured way to enable a focus on what matters to the participant. It can be very valuable in helping to understand a range of perspectives, opinions, experiences, feelings or behaviours, particularly when topics are complex.

1.49 However, it is important to note that while this report gives an in-depth understanding of the perspectives of those who were involved in the research, its findings cannot be extrapolated to the wider population. The key limitations of the method include:

  • Range - The range of ASN and types of additional support for learning provision in Scotland is extensive. While the method was designed to provide a reasonable mix of authorities, schools, pupils, parents and school staff, it cannot cover all scenarios. Everyone with ASN is an individual, and has their own individual story to tell.
  • Volume - While 100 young people with ASN were involved in this research, there are more than 184,000 young people with ASN in Scotland. The research therefore provides an insight into a relatively small number of experiences.
  • Relationships - The research involved one-off in-depth discussions with young people with ASN. The researchers are trained and experienced in engaging with young people with a wide range of ASN and worked hard to establish a relationship. However, it is clear that young people may not feel comfortable talking about all aspects of their experiences within a one-off discussion, with someone they have met for the first time.
  • Selection of young people - The researchers worked hard with schools to make clear that the research should not only involve those who have positive experiences at school, or those who are particularly articulate or communicative. The schools involved demonstrated a good understanding of the reasons for the research being undertaken, and committed to identifying a range of young people and parents for involvement in the research. From the discussions, it appears that a real mix of pupils and parents were identified by schools. However, the researchers did not have access to any database of needs and experience against which to compare the sample of young people identified, and so relied on teacher judgement and knowledge for pupil and parent selection.

1.50 To help with interpreting the findings from the research, a consistent scale has been used to present the findings. This scale is provided as a guide.

  • One - Used where just one person mentioned an issue.
  • A few - Used where two or three participants mentioned an issue.
  • Some - Used where more than a few participants mentioned an issue, but less than half.
  • Most or many - Used where more than half of participants mentioned an issue.

1.51 However, it is worth noting that qualitative research explores key themes in a semi-structured way, and some participants naturally brought up issues in response to questions which others were not specifically probed on. This should therefore not be used to extrapolate findings to a wider group.



Back to top