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.


About this research

In 2022, the Scottish Government’s Support and Wellbeing Unit and the Doran Review National Strategic Commissioning Group commissioned Humanly, a human-centred design studio, to conduct qualitative research on the ways pupils with complex additional support needs within Scotland are supported in order to reach their full potential.

Research aims

The research explored three main themes:

1. The ways in which different institutional partners work together to improve outcomes for pupils with complex additional support needs.

The research explored the roles different institutions play to deliver these positive outcomes (e.g. successful transitions) and looked at evidence of cooperation between those partners and evidence on areas where there may be tensions or ineffective deployment of resources.

2. How the above translates into guidance and policies that local authorities offer schools.

The research explored whether existing policies are sufficient to deliver positive outcomes for children with complex additional support needs (e.g. successful transitions), and further explored not only whether there are any areas where policies are lacking or contradicting each other but also how this affects the delivery of the positive outcomes. The research explored some examples of good practice and certain challenges to delivery, as well as whether the approaches that local authorities take on staff training are effective in preparing them to deal with complex additional needs.

3. The perspectives of children, parents and carers on whether the approaches taken by schools and other institutional actors are considered to be sufficiently meeting the complex needs they may have, and whether there are any barriers/challenges to positive outcomes (e.g. are the expectations for successful transitions being met?).

The findings will be used to inform and support further work by the National Strategic Commissioning Group[1] to improve the educational experiences of children and young people with complex additional support needs. This contributes towards the implementation of Scotland’s 10-Year Strategy (2017-2026)[2], to deliver children an equitable opportunity to succeed, and to make sure all children reach their potential.


Provision landscape

There are a number of significant and connected factors that must be understood to contextualise this research.

Under the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004, an additional support need is defined broadly. It applies to children or young people who, for whatever reason, require additional support, in the long or short term, in order to help them make the most of their school education and to be included fully in their learning. Under this framework, a formal diagnosis or identification is not required for a child or young person to receive appropriate support with their learning.

Complex additional support needs may arise as result of:

  • the severity of one or more factors resulting in need, and/or
  • the combined impact of a number of separate factors, one or more of which may be severe.

The Doran Review’s 10 Year Strategy notes that ‘a rigorous, clearly bounded and universally accepted definition is extremely difficult to formulate because of the multiplicity of factors and the impact of specific contexts in different local authorities.’[3]

For the purpose of this research the description of complex additional support needs used by the National Strategic Commissioning Group[4] was employed, with the addition of children and young people who attend a local authority special school.

The children and young people with complex additional support needs involved in the research were therefore within one or more of the following descriptors:

1. Children and young people in receipt of a co-ordinated support plan as defined in the Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 (as amended);[5]

2. Children and young people aged 3-18 who do not have a co-ordinated support plan, but who have been assessed as stage 3 or 4 by a local authority under a staged intervention model as outlined in the Additional Support for Learning Code of Practice;[6]

3. Children and young people aged 3-18 who attend a local authority, grant-aided or independent special school.

There is a range of provision in Scotland to meet the needs of children and young people with additional support needs, from local authority mainstream and specialist provision to independent and grant-aided special schools.

Education authorities use a range of planning mechanisms to meet the needs of children and young people. These include personal learning plans, individualised educational programmes and the statutory coordinated support plan (CSP). Education authorities are legally required to provide a CSP for children and young people with complex or multiple needs, which are expected to last for a year or more, and require significant support from education, and at least one other agency. The purpose of the CSP is to enable individual support and interventions to be planned in a coordinated way across all agencies involved in supporting the child or young person. These education plans often link into a Child’s Plan, under the Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC) policy framework, which is focused on supporting children and young people’s health and wellbeing.

The number of pupils recorded as requiring additional support in Scottish schools has been steadily increasing year on year. In 2022, there were 705,874 pupils in Scottish schools. There were 241,639 pupils recorded as having additional support needs, which is 34% of pupils. 95% of pupils recorded as having additional support needs learnt in mainstream classes. These figures do not include the 132 pupils attending grant-aided special schools[7] in 2022. Where pupils attend an additional support unit attached to a mainstream school, they are usually included in the figures for the mainstream school. However, some schools and local authorities report pupils attending additional support units separately.[8]

This is an increase from September 2010, when there were 69,587 pupils identified as having additional support needs in a school population of 673,140 pupils.[9] Therefore 10% of pupils were identified as having additional support needs in 2010.

There are a number of factors that influence this increase in the number of pupils with identified additional support needs. These include increased awareness and identification of additional support needs, alongside changes in the descriptors of additional support needs. In 2010, the way in which information was collected regarding additional support needs changed, and the descriptors for additional support needs widened. Since 2012, six additional categories of reasons for support have been introduced. These are communication support needs, young carer, bereavement, substance misuse, family issues and risk of exclusion.

There is no specific category for ‘complex needs’ in the Scottish Government’s annual pupil census data collection as there is no universal definition for the term.

Although it is not possible to disaggregate pupils with complex additional support needs, the following data gives an indication of the national context in which children and young people with additional support needs are learning. In 2022, there were 7,821 pupils in local authority special schools, an increase of 1021 from 6,800 in 2010. The following table provides an overview of the proportion of time pupils with additional support needs spent in mainstream classes in 2022.

Integration of pupils with additional support needs into mainstream classes, 2022
Nature of attendance Pupils in special schools and those with additional support needs in mainstream schools
All the time in mainstream classes 224,517
¾ or more but less than all time in mainstream classes 3,017
½ or more but less than ¾ of the time in mainstream classes 1,565
¼ or more but less than ½ of the time in mainstream classes 553
Some time, but less than ¼ of the time in mainstream classes 775
No time in mainstream classes 11,212

The latest local government financial returns show that spending on additional support for learning across Scotland’s 32 local authorities was £830m in 2021-22.[10] While a national figure, it is important to note that spend, and spending decisions, vary in each local authority.

Policy and guidance

In 2012, ‘The Doran Review - learning provision for children and young people with complex additional support needs[11]’ was conducted to identify ways of improving educational outcomes for children with complex additional support needs. The Review made recommendations aimed at providing better outcomes and experiences. The review included recommendations regarding the commissioning (as well as the funding) of services, such as the national services. A Strategic Commissioning Project, supported by a Project Board and five workstreams, was established to address these specific recommendations.

A National Strategic Commissioning Group with membership drawn from children, parents, providers, purchasers and representative organisations was established and developed the initial Strategy.[12]

Alongside the Scottish Government’s work to implement the recommendations of the Doran Review, the Scottish Government is committed to implementing the recommendations from the 2020 review of the implementation of additional support for learning policy and legislation[13] by March 2026. A joint Scottish Government and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities (COSLA) action plan was published alongside the review in October 2020.[14] Subsequent progress updates and revised action plans were published in November 2021[15] and November 2022.[16] The review, its recommendations and the associated action plans are focused on improving the learning experience of children and young people with additional support needs, including those with complex needs considered by this research, and the support provided to their families.

These reviews and recommendations, and the research findings in this report, are set in the context of an extensive range of legislation, guidance, reports and ongoing policy work to improve outcomes for children and young people in this area. Key documents, relevant to the inquiry areas and findings in this report, from the year 2000 onwards are set out here by the year in which they were published.

The Standards in Scotland‘s Schools Act 2000 (the 2000 Act)[17] sets out the right of all children and young people to education, and local authorities’ duty to ensure the education is ‘directed to the development of the personality, talents and mental and physical abilities of the child or young person to their fullest potential’.

The 2000 Act includes a ‘Requirement that education be provided in mainstream schools’, which sets out the expectation that education should be provided in ‘a school other than a special school’ except under these specific circumstances:

  • The education provided in a mainstream school would not be suitable for the aptitude and abilities of the child in question;
  • The education provided in a mainstream school would be incompatible with the provision of efficient education for the children with whom the child would be educated;
  • Placing the child in question in a mainstream school would incur unreasonable levels of public expenditure that would not otherwise be incurred.

Further guidance on the presumption of mainstream was published in 2019, ‘Guidance on the presumption to provide education in a mainstream setting’ (March 2019).[18] This guidance aimed at bridging the gap between legislation, policy and day-to-day experience, ensuring that children and young people have equitable access to a quality education which meets their needs and helps them achieve their full potential. This guidance outlines the four key features of inclusive practice for children and young people’s learning (Present, Participating, Achieving and Supported) and how these can be implemented across mainstream, specialist and ‘flexible’ provision.

The 2000 Act was followed, in 2002, by the Education (Disability Strategies and Pupils’ Educational Records) (Scotland) Act 2002 and its accompanying guidance[19] which sets out the legal requirement for education authorities, and those responsible for independent and grant-aided schools (the responsible bodies under the Act) to prepare and implement an accessibility strategy for all the schools for which they are responsible. The strategy should include:

  • Increasing the extent to which pupils with a disability can participate in the school’s curriculum or, as the case may be, the schools’ curriculums;
  • Improving the physical environment of the school (or schools), in relation to which, the strategy for the purpose of increasing the extent to which pupils with a disability are able to take advantage of education and associated services provided or offered by such school (or schools) is prepared;
  • Improving communication with pupils with a disability.

The Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004 (“the 2004 Act”)[20], as amended, sets out the duties of education authorities and the rights of parents, children and young people to additional support for learning. The 2004 Act introduced Coordinated Support Plans and requirements for local authorities and NHS boards to work together to improve outcomes for children and young people.[21] Under the 2004 Act children and young people are identified as having additional support needs when they require additional support, in comparison to their peers of the same age and stage, in order to benefit from school education. This is not dependent on a diagnosis.

The guidance supporting the implementation of the Act has been updated to reflect changes and additions to legislation. The most recent edition is the Additional Support for Learning: Statutory Guidance 2017.[22]

Legislation published in 2005, The Requirements for Teachers (Scotland) Regulations 2005[23], introduced specific requirements for teachers working with pupils with hearing and visual impairments.

In 2006, The Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006[24] was published to further the involvement of parents in their children’s education. The Act highlights the shared role and responsibility that schools, parents and carers have in working together to educate children. It also places a responsibility on local authorities to improve parental involvement. The Act is supported by Guidance on the Scottish Schools (Parental Involvement) Act 2006.[25]

Following a public consultation on the reform of children’s services in 2005, Getting it Right for Every Child (GIRFEC)[26] was developed. GIRFEC is the Scottish Government’s commitment to providing all children, young people and their families with the right support at the right time. This includes the Safe, Healthy, Achieving, Nurtured, Active, Respected, Responsible, Included (SHANARRI) wellbeing indicators.[27] The approach was first tested in 2006 with pathfinders across Scotland testing the GIRFEC Implementation Plan. The supporting guidance and resources to GIRFEC were most recently updated in 2022[28] following co-production with representatives from the public sector, health boards, third sector and national organisations. Key elements of GIRFEC were put into law in the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014.[29]

The Equality Act 2010[30] places duties on education authorities to actively deal with inequality, and to prevent direct disability discrimination, indirect disability discrimination and discrimination arising from disability and harassment or victimisation of pupils on the basis, or a perceived basis, of protected characteristics, including disability. Education authorities have a duty to make reasonable adjustments for disabled pupils.

2010 saw the implementation of Curriculum for Excellence,[31] which applies to both English and Gaelic Medium Education. Curriculum for Excellence is the universal offer for all children and young people’s learning in Scotland between the ages of 3 and 18. This includes children and young people with complex additional support needs. Curriculum of Excellence aims at providing a broad general education across all curriculum areas from early years up to the end of S3 (third year in secondary), followed by a senior phase of learning from S4 to S6 offering opportunities to achieve and attain (e.g. qualifications and awards).

There are eight curriculum areas in the Curriculum for Excellence, three of which are the responsibility of all staff. These areas are literacy across learning, numeracy across learning and health and wellbeing across learning.

A refreshed narrative on the curriculum was published in September 2019 with the aim that it will help all children and young people in Scotland gain the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for life in the 21st century.[32] Ongoing improvement work is currently underway in response to the 2021 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, Into the Future.[33] It should also be noted that the Scottish Government has commissioned an independent review of qualifications and assessment, which is due to conclude after this report has been finalised.[34]

Curriculum for Excellence is designed to allow teachers the flexibility to tailor learning to the age and stage of pupil development. This flexibility is of particular importance for teachers working with children and young people with complex additional support needs who will require bespoke and individualised curriculum planning. It is recognised that some children and young people with complex additional support needs will learn at the curriculum’s pre-early level between the ages of 3 to 18.[35]

In 2016, The Education (Scotland) Act 2016[36] extended the rights of children aged over 12 with capacity, under the Additional Support for Learning Act, to use rights on their own behalf to affect decision-making about them. The Act also includes provision for strategic planning to consider socio-economic barriers to learning.

Since 2018, Health Boards in Scotland have had a legislative duty to provide or secure communication equipment and the support in using that equipment, often referred to as Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC). This duty applies to children and adults, from all care groups who have lost their voice or have difficulty speaking.[37]

Specialist AAC provision is delivered across Scotland by the NHS and Integration Joint Boards. This is delivered primarily through speech and language therapy, and often in collaboration with Education, Social Work and the Third Sector as appropriate to the assessed needs of the individual.

Health Boards are under a duty to provide communication equipment and support to such an extent as they consider necessary to meet all reasonable requirements, taking into consideration the needs, views and choices of each individual, as is the case with other health provision.

Research methodology

This research involved three phases:

Phase One: Research design

The research design phase was guided by a research advisory group, acting on behalf of the National Strategic Commissioning Group.

Additionally, a review of relevant policy, guidance, research and data was conducted to ensure a robust understanding of the legislative landscape and provide context to the research.

An enquiry framework was developed to explore the key research themes of Policy, Practice, Partnerships and Perspectives of parents/carers and pupils. This framework is available at Annex One. A range of qualitative research methods were developed for exploring the research themes with different participants.

Qualitative research

Qualitative research is particularly useful in exploring complex areas, providing an in-depth understanding of particular experiences, views, choices and behaviours. In this research it allowed for probing of key issues as they emerge, and discussion in a semi-structured way, which enabled a focus on what mattered to the participant. As a methodology it was very valuable in helping to understand a range of perspectives, opinions, experiences, feelings or behaviours, particularly when topics were complex. 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 this method include the limited sample size, which means that this research provides an insight into a relatively small number of experiences. Additionally, participation in the research was voluntary and self-selecting, therefore the findings may not be representative of the wider views and experiences of children and young people with complex additional support needs, their parents/carers, school staff or stakeholders within the system.

Ethical considerations

Ethical considerations are always key in conducting any research, however when working with children and young people, especially children and young people with complex additional support needs, there are additional sensitivities that must be taken into account. At the outset of this project the following ethical considerations were identified, along with mitigating actions to adhere to high ethical standards:

Consent forms

Written consent for child participation was sought from the child’s parent, carer or guardian.

Choice and consent with children

There is a risk that children and young people who take part in research do not really choose to participate or know why the researchers are there. To mitigate this risk the choice to participate was reiterated at the start of each research session. Children were also informed that they were free to stop whenever they wanted to.

Additional considerations when working with children with complex additional support needs

Establishing clear ethical consent from children with complex additional support needs is crucial. However, this is a complex area, as some children may have a limited understanding of what they are being asked to take part in. At the start of each research activity, the purpose of the research was explained in language appropriate to the child or young person’s age and stage. Children and young people were informed that they did not have to speak to the researchers or join in with any activities if they did not want to, and that they could opt-out at any time. Participation in the activity or conversation was considered active consent. The researchers worked with the people around individuals who know them well (e.g. school staff) to ensure that they understood if children and young people were displaying any behaviours that indicated a lack of enjoyment or consent.


Any information that may directly or indirectly identify participants or schools has been anonymised during reporting.


The research team has extensive experience in working with vulnerable groups and ensuring that research methods are tailored to individual needs and preferences. This tailoring ensured that participation in this research was not limited by language or protected characteristics.

Research methods with children and young people

All research with children and young people was conducted in person in their schools. This involved a mix of activities with individuals and small groups. These activities were based around semi-structured conversations and creative activities designed to explore the areas of enquiry with children and young people of different ages and with a wide range of complex additional support needs.

A toolkit of research activities was developed to enable meaningful, enjoyable and accessible experiences. This toolkit is available at Annex Two. Activities were designed to facilitate open, exploratory conversations, drawing on findings around the tendency among people with learning disabilities to perceive a series of questions asked by professionals or in a formal setting as a test.[38] The creative methods used included:

  • Providing pupils with the materials to make a mini representation of themselves (a ‘mini me’), surrounded by the things in school that make them feel happy and supported, using collage, drawing and writing;
Figure 1: 'Mini me' activity conducted with pupils
Three photographs show tables covered with lots of paper silhouettes, pens, stickers and communication symbols. Pupils are using the materials to make pictures of themselves surrounded by things they enjoy.
Figure 2: 'Mini me' outputs created by pupils
Three photographs of finished ‘Mini mes’.
Photograph one shows a smiling representation of the pupil surrounded by heart-shaped post-its with pictures and drawings of animals, friends, maths and music.
Photograph two shows a smiling representation of the pupil on top of a picture of a wild-looking garden with a shed and large trees in the background. 
Photograph three shows a smiling representation of the pupil with the words swimming, friends, outside, iPad and stories written around it.
  • Presenting pupils with chalkboards with collages of images representing different topics including education, work, fun, having a say, relationships, and home - these were used to explore each of these topics with responses captured on each board.
Figure 3: Chalkboard conversations with pupils
Two photographs of chalkboards with collages of images on them relating to fun and education.
Writing around the colleges in colourful chalk pen says things that the pupils think are fun including trampolining, swimming and going outside. The words around the education collage include ‘I like school’ and ‘I love P.E. with specific teacher’.

Each research activity was tailored around the specific needs and preferences (such as verbal/non-verbal communication) of the individuals involved to enable everyone to participate. Children and young people were given the freedom to express themselves in the way that suited them best (including through talking, signing, using symbols, drawing and making).

Figure 4: Using symbols to support conversations with pupils with non-verbal communication
Three photographs show pupils pointing to symbols to communicate. Photograph one shows a pupil pointing to the symbol for ‘disco’. Photographs two and three show pupils using the symbol for ‘good’.

During school visits these research activities were combined with guided tours of some schools led by pupils with complex additional support needs, as well as observations of classrooms, school outings and trips.

Research methods with parents/carers

Research with parents/carers involved semi-structured individual interviews and focus group discussions conducted in person at schools and remotely via video call. Parents and carers were given the choice of how to participate in the way that worked best for them.

Research methods with school staff

Research with school staff involved semi-structured individual interviews and focus group discussions conducted primarily in person at schools. Additionally, some head teachers were interviewed remotely via video call.

During school visits, research activities were combined with guided tours of some schools led by staff, as well as observations of classrooms, school outings and trips. ‘Show and tell’ activities were also used to explore the materials, resources and tools used by staff to support children and young people.

Research methods with system stakeholders

Research with wider system stakeholders involved semi-structured individual interviews and focus group discussions conducted remotely via video or telephone call.

Phase Two: Fieldwork

The fieldwork for this research was conducted during November and December of 2022.

Locations and schools

Over the course of this research 11 schools across 7 of Scotland’s 32 local authorities were visited.

Research locations and schools were identified in collaboration with the research advisory group. To maintain the anonymity of those who participated in this research, selected locations and schools will not be identified.

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 was identified as being representative of the wider system of educational provision for pupils in Scotland with complex additional support needs. This included:

  • a range of school settings, including mainstream schools, both with and without additional support units, as well as local authority funded, grant-aided and independent special schools;
  • early years, primary and secondary schools;
  • schools with day and residential opportunities.

It should be noted that this research was qualitative, and the 11 schools were not representative of the more than 2,500 schools and more than 2,400 early learning centres across Scotland.

Overview of participants

202 research participants were engaged in total, including:

  • 91 children and young people with complex additional support needs;
  • 18 parents/carers of children with complex additional support needs;
  • 73 school staff;
  • 20 system stakeholders.

The 91 children and young people involved in this research had a wide range of needs and experiences. This included:

  • children and young people with emotional, behavioural, physical, learning and communication needs;
  • children and young people who have received a diagnosis and those who have not;
  • children and young people who are underrepresented or seldom heard in research, for example children who do not use verbal communication, children who are not involved in existing schemes such as school councils, children and young people with profound and multiple learning disabilities, and children with distressed behaviour;
  • looked after children (both living with foster carers and living in residential care settings);
  • children and young people with kinship carers;
  • a range of ages from 3-18;
  • a range of genders, socio-economic backgrounds and ethnic backgrounds;
  • children and young people who identify as LGBTQIA+.

These participants are referred to as ‘pupils’ and ‘children and young people’ throughout this report. All references to pupils, children or young people are pupils, children or young people with complex additional support needs, unless otherwise stated.

The 18 parents and carers of children with complex additional support needs involved in this research included:

  • a range of family types, for example two+ parents/carers, single parents and kinship carers;
  • a range of family sizes;
  • parents/carers with complex additional needs;
  • parents/carers with a large distance or long travel time between their home and their child’s school;
  • parents/carers who are underrepresented or seldom heard in research, for example not involved with parent/carer organisations;
  • parents/carers who are working and parents/carers who are not in employment;
  • a range of ages and socio-economic backgrounds.

These participants are referred to as ‘parents and carers’ throughout this report.

The 73 school staff involved in this research included head teachers, depute head teachers, principal teachers, class teachers with a range of experience, from newly qualified teachers to teachers with many years of experience, and pupil support staff. All of these participants are collectively described as ‘school staff’ throughout this report.

The 20 stakeholders from the wider system of support involved in this research included members of the National Strategic Commissioning Group; Scottish Government and Education Scotland stakeholders; local authority stakeholders, including principal educational psychologists and ASN outreach service managers; qualified teachers of the visually impaired and teachers of the Deaf; speech and language therapists; academics; and specialists in assistive technology and augmentative communication. These participants are referred to as ‘system stakeholders’ throughout this report.

Phase Three: Analysis and reporting

After the fieldwork stage, all of the information gathered was analysed using a process of thematic analysis. This involves researchers manually reviewing all of the responses to identify emerging patterns and recurring themes, as well as singular cases (ideas/perspectives not raised in other responses). In analysing perspectives, key variances were explored between participant groupings, staff and stakeholder roles, local authority areas, and types of school.

Following the conclusion of thematic analysis, a number of overarching themes were identified across the key areas of enquiry. These summarise the views most frequently shared by participants. Within these themes, the research team has sought to be respectful of the full spectrum of views and perceptions expressed within the research.

Within the report, a broad qualitative scale has been used to describe the proportion of participants who commented on particular themes and topics. This scale is provided as a guide.

  • one/an individual – Used where just one participant 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 half or more than half of participants mentioned an issue.

However, it is worth noting that approach taken in this 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.

The main body of this report sets out the key themes under each of the four areas of enquiry explored within the research. Individual quotes and examples have been used, where appropriate, to illustrate the narrative around specific themes. Views are reported anonymously. Quotes are attributed broadly, to provide an idea of the type of stakeholder commenting while preserving anonymity. Comments have been reported carefully to reduce the ability to identify the school or location being discussed.


Email: supportinglearners@gov.scot

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