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.


In conclusion, 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. The participants in this research agreed that there is positive intent within the policy and legislation that currently exists to support children with complex additional support needs. However, policy alone cannot deliver positive outcomes for children and young people. Despite policy intent, this research found some children, parents and carers are struggling to have children and young people’s needs met to enable them to flourish in their school settings, at times impacting their lives at home, too.

This report has outlined how practices of inclusion are not applied consistently, nor are they universally understood as intended by all practitioners and stakeholders working within the Scottish education system. This research has found that at times the presumption of mainstreaming is perceived to stand in contention with Getting it Right for Every Child. This report suggests that without robust policy, practice and resources around inclusion that enable the implementation of a flexible and tailored approach to every child’s needs, the perception of a conflict existing between the presumption of mainstreaming and Getting It Right for Every Child will continue.

This research found that flexible inclusion, that enables children to flourish includes, but is not limited to, an understanding of the adaptability of Curriculum of Excellence. Teachers must also feel they have the capacity and autonomy to implement such adaptations, including focusing on life skills to prepare children for life after school.

Without robust and comprehensive practices and resourcing around support for children and young people with complex additional support needs, children, parents and carers will continue to struggle at times within this system. Currently, this means that at certain points some parents and carers feel that their children are unsuitably placed in schools that do not enable them to flourish. More exploration is needed into the implementation and practices of inclusion in schools in order to ensure all children have an equitable chance to succeed.

This research has also heard concerns relating to decision-making regarding allocation of resources, including school placements. This included decisions relating to placements at independent or grant-aided special schools, and placements in local authority mainstream or special schools. Some parents reported concerns regarding the role of parental advocacy in placement decisions. Additional factors reported to play a role in placement allocations included children and young people’s care needs, for example the need for a residential placement. The report suggests that due to the complex range of factors involved in the decision-making process it would, in the researchers’ view, merit further exploration with all key stakeholders.

This research found many examples of good practice that have enabled children with complex additional support needs to flourish. Overarchingly, parents, carers and children remarked throughout this research on the positive impact teachers can have. There was a perception that many teachers ‘go above and beyond’ to support children with complex additional support needs. This report has identified key characteristics of good practice within schools to enable its replication across school settings; these include a supportive work culture and leadership, sufficient paid time for support staff, and rigorous professional training balanced with experiential learning.

The research illustrated many examples of how built environments and certain resources can encourage children to feel happy, fulfilled, and thrive. These features included infrastructure, such as outdoor space and activities, access to local communities, access to technology, break-out areas, swimming pools and purpose-built schools with space and natural light. It was found that there was inequitable access to such resources across different school settings. More exploration is needed to understand how to replicate these desirable features across all school settings. However, this report acknowledges the difficulty of this within the context of limited resources.

Partnerships across different types of school provision and services had clear positive outcomes in circumstances where these partnerships were well established. These were evident across many schools where pupils were experiencing successful transitions between schools. The most successful partnerships across services that were reported were those that were established organically because they were co-located in the same building. However, there were also perceptions amongst parents and teachers of decreasing access to resources, and therefore diminishing partnerships with specialists such as educational psychologists and occupational therapists.

The views of children and young people, parents and carers were central to this research. When school placements are successful, and children and young people feel well supported, the impact is profound on the young person's sense of belonging, sense of self and ability to thrive. Children and young people, parents and carers often had clear ideas about what they needed and what worked well for them. Coupled with these clear articulations were often narratives of ‘fighting’ a system and experiencing a ‘struggle’.

Most parents and carers that discussed their experience of their child attending early years provision articulated their experiences of this having been positive, owing to the close relationships they had with early years providers. Anxiety and struggle became more prominent in parents’, carers’ and children’s reported experiences as children and young people ascended in their education. A primary reason articulated for this was around barriers to accessing specialist provision. It was perceived that some children are only able to access specialist support after being placed, sometimes multiple times, in mainstream settings that do not meet their needs. This has led to some children and young people missing education and/or developing anxiety around school.

Examples of children and young people thriving were seen across settings. Notable examples include where specialist provision was co-located with a mainstream setting, and integration was consistently occurring between these settings. In all settings a key enabler or barrier was staff resourcing. Sufficient staff ratios supported integration and access to a broad curriculum. Important characteristics for parents and carers to feel empowered and supported include, but are not limited to, clear communication with schools and agreement surrounding the type of education their child should receive.

What is clear, and not new; the needs of children with complex additional support needs are incredibly varied, and a tailored and flexible approach is required to meet their needs and enable them to flourish at school. This research has identified four themes that are integral to delivering inclusive and tailored approaches to all children and young people. These include:

  • Resourcing, in particular in relation to staffing;
  • The brilliant, committed and supportive nature of staff surrounding pupils;
  • Where children are placed for their schooling; and
  • Robust training for all providers who interact with children with complex additional support needs.

The researchers note that the Scottish Government is currently undertaking work with partners to respond to the recommendations of Angela Morgan’s 2020 review into the implementation of additional support for learning. Many of the themes highlighted in this report reinforce, and build upon, her findings and pose areas for further research. 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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