Pupils with complex additional support needs: research into provision

The research looked at policy, practice, partnerships and the perspectives of parents, carers, children and young people in Scotland to explore the ways that pupils with

complex needs are supported. Resources, staffing, placements and training were emerging themes in all of the enquiry areas.

Executive summary

About this research

This report sets out findings of research carried out in 2022 into provision for pupils with complex additional support needs in Scotland. This research was carried out by Humanly and was commissioned by the Scottish Government.

The overall aim of the research was to explore the ways pupils with complex additional support needs within Scotland are supported in order to reach their full potential. The research focused on four main themes: policy, practice, partnerships, and the perspectives of parents, carers, children and young people.

To explore these themes a range of perspectives was sought, including from children and young people, parents and carers, school staff and system stakeholders. The research involved 11 schools across 7 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.

The research locations were geographically diverse and captured a range of local authority sizes, differing levels of deprivation and a variety of local provision. The sample of schools included a range of school settings across early years, primary and secondary. This included mainstream schools, both with and without additional support units, as well as local authority funded, grant-aided and independent special schools.

This research involved 202 participants including 91 children and young people with complex additional support needs, 18 parents and carers, 73 school staff (including class teachers, pupil support staff and senior leaders), and 20 stakeholders from the wider support system.

This research was qualitative and involved in-depth discussions, classroom observations, and creative activities with children and young people. Qualitative research is particularly useful in exploring complex areas, providing an in-depth understanding of particular experiences, perspectives, feelings and behaviours. 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.

Cross-cutting themes

A number of findings emerged that span the enquiry themes. It is noted that many of these findings reinforce those of Angela Morgan’s independently chaired review of Additional Support for Learning in 2020.

The cross-cutting findings include a perceived reduction in resources. Many teachers, support staff, senior school staff, parents and system stakeholders raised the challenges this issue creates.

Staff at every level were reported to be integral to the delivery of positive learning environments for children and young people with complex additional support needs. Many pupils, parents, carers, school staff and system stakeholders highlighted the impact of individual staff as being key to enabling positive experiences of education. Many participants involved in partnership working reported that individual staff make the biggest difference in how partnerships work effectively.

The topic of placements cuts across every theme. There is a perception amongst some parents and school staff that national policy regarding placements is not always implemented as it is intended.

Some system stakeholders, school staff and parents discussed training, which is a topic that spans all of the themes of this report. Participants recognised the positive impact that training can have and acknowledged challenges in accessing it. Many staff also recognised the value of learning from their peers and children and young people.


The research found that most school staff and parents had a high awareness of national policies relating to the support of children and young people with complex additional support needs. Most of these participants believed that the intent of these policies is positive. Some participants highlighted a perceived conflict between some policies, for example Getting it Right for Every Child and the presumption of mainstream.


Most parents, carers and pupils reported that staff and positive relationships were overwhelmingly the most important factors in enabling children and young people with complex additional support needs to thrive. There was also a perception from school staff that positive school leadership was integral in creating a supportive culture for both pupils and staff.

Many school staff and some pupils raised the importance of the physical environments of schools. This included outdoor space, quiet space, natural light and resources such as swimming pools.

Many children and young people, parents and carers, and school staff reported that supported access to the local community was beneficial and highly valued. However, some school staff reported a reduction in children and young people being able to access the local community. This was attributed to a perceived reduction in resources.

Practice varies across Scotland, and this is perceived by some parents as a ‘postcode lottery’.


Many parents had positive experiences during their children’s early years. Parents reported good partnership working within early years settings and were very positive about the support their child received at that time.

Many staff and some parents reported that children and young people have less access to external specialist support than in previous years. These specialists include Educational Psychologists, Speech and Language Therapists and Occupational Therapists.

Perspectives of parents/carers and pupils

Many parents and school staff reported positive practices around transitions between schools. Parents and pupils reported that supported transitions have a positive impact on children and young people.

Most children and young people with complex additional support needs reported that having friends and positive relationships with staff were both key factors in order for them to enjoy school and feel fully included.


This report concludes that in the ten years since the Doran report was first published, the context of supporting children with complex additional support needs has changed. The number of children and young people identified with additional support needs has risen in Scotland, with participants reporting an increased number of children and young people presenting with more complex needs.

There have been numerous policies and guidance published since 2012 to support children with complex additional support needs in schools. However, policy alone cannot deliver positive outcomes for children and young people. Despite positive policy intent, this research found that some children, parents and carers are struggling to have children and young people’s needs met to enable them to flourish.

This report highlights many examples of good practice that learning can be drawn from, as well as highlighting the barriers and enablers to good practice. It is hoped that the emerging themes from this research provide a helpful evidence base to further inform both this work and ongoing work to implement the Doran Review recommendations of improving outcomes for children and young people with complex additional support needs in Scotland.


Email: supportinglearners@gov.scot

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