Review of additional support for learning implementation: executive summary

Executive summary of a report from an independent review of the implementation of the additional support for learning legislation which began in September 2019 and concluded with the submission of this report and recommendations to Scottish Ministers and COSLA. Full report:

Overview of findings

There are many dedicated, skilled and inspiring professionals who care deeply about children and young people with additional support needs. They are doing everything they can to support them to flourish and fulfil their potential in a delivery environment which makes that extremely difficult. Their commitment in the face of that deserves recognition and appreciation.

However, the evidence that emerges from this Review affirms that Additional Support for Learning is not visible or equally valued within Scotland's Education system. Consequently, the implementation of Additional Support for Learning legislation[3] is over-dependent on committed individuals, is fragmented and inconsistent and is not ensuring that all children and young people who need additional support are being supported to flourish and fulfil their potential.

There is no fundamental deficit in the principle and policy intention of the Additional Support for Learning legislation and the substantial guidance accompanying it. The challenge is in translating that intention into practice for all our children and young people who face different barriers to their learning across a range of different home and learning environments.


There has been a significant increase in the number of children and young people identified as having additional support needs, initially caused by a change in recording in 2010[4] and continuing to increase year on year to 2018. The complexity of needs has also increased due to a range of factors that create barriers to learning[5].

These factors affect children in all parts of their lives, not just during the time they are in education.

In that regard there has been a significant increase in children and young people identified as having an additional support need due to social emotional and behavioural issues coinciding with an increase in poverty and inequality.[6]

At the same time, austerity has put significant pressure on resources in all parts of the public sector.

That combination, of significantly increased need and static or reduced resources, is clearly the most powerful driver in shaping the current reality of implementation.

At the time of this report, the most recent figures (2018) show that 30.9%[7] of children and young people in schools in Scotland have an additional support need. That statistic highlights that this cannot continue to be viewed as a minority area of interest, to be considered in a separate silo within the framework of Scottish Education.

Education authorities have lead implementation responsibility and yet the language of the legislation is Learning for Life. This encompasses a much wider perspective than education alone. But, that breadth of vision is not yet realised. Other agencies[8] are not playing as full a role as intended by the legislation, not least due to increased thresholds for service access, due to austerity.

Measuring Impact

The negative impact of increased need and static or reduced resources is compounded in how Additional Support for Learning works in practice by other strongly influential factors:

1. The dominance of attainment and qualification results as the measure for success in Scotland's Education system, and the focus on that in political discourse. This devalues and demoralises children and young people who learn and achieve in other ways, and it devalues and demoralises the staff who work with them.

2. There is evidence of very positive continuous improvement and review processes supporting creative and innovative change and development. Headed up by respected leaders, clearly aligned to the key purpose of supporting all children and young people to learn and achieve, and implemented and embedded with their involvement, these processes are valued and supported by frontline staff. However, frontline staff report that where those factors are not evident, the impact of these processes is stressful, demoralising, time consuming and without benefit to the experience of children and young people or the professionals involved.

Culture and Leadership

Overall the key conditions identified by frontline staff, which enable them to effectively fulfil their role in implementing the legislation, are:

  • Values driven leadership
  • An open and robust culture of communication, support and challenge underpinned by trust, respect and positive relationships
  • Resource alignment, including time for communication and planning processes
  • Methodology for delivery of knowledge learning and practice development, which incorporates time for coaching, mentoring, reflection and embedding into practice.

The evidence does not support the assumption that all individual professionals are signed up to the principles of inclusion and the presumption of mainstreaming.[9] Some professionals, who believe in the principles, are disillusioned by not seeing delivery in practice. Others express a core belief that their role should only be to teach.

The Review was consistently told by committed professionals at operational and senior leadership levels that Additional Support for Learning is viewed by many of their colleagues as "Somebody else's problem" and "not their responsibility".

Where this mind-set is dominant, children, young people and their families are not always treated with the respect and values that underpin the principles of inclusion and the presumption of mainstreaming.

These points reinforce the critical need for an underpinning leadership ethos, and delivery culture, of support and challenge. The crucial conditions for that are accountability, visibility, monitoring and measurement, which enable a mature and clear understanding of the challenges, however considerable these may be.


At school and education authority levels, the challenges, in relation to additional support needs and provision, are consuming significant amounts of time and energy; too often as a result of intensive informal or formal adversarial processes. At a national, strategic policy level, the issue has not been visible in the way it needs to be, which reinforces the persistent lack of value we place on children and young people who have an additional support need.

At broader policy and political level, competition for recognition, due to resource constraints, is driving a focus on specific conditions or needs groups within Additional Support for Learning.

Focus on individual children and young people, and on specific conditions, obscures the more fundamental question of what a child focused education (and other public service) system, with 30.9% of children and young people with an additional support need, looks like and the absolutely critical issue of the workforce needed for that landscape.

One review contributor notes (and this language was frequently heard):

"Inclusion is not a Department. Schools need to be ready for children and young people as they are, not as we think they should be… And there is a fantasy that someone out there can fix things …. Sprinkle magic dust and make the challenges go away"

30.9% of a population is not marginal. The evidence is that fulfilling the vision of the Additional Support for Learning legislation through "tweaking" systems and provision around a baseline assumption of educating children who may have support needs, but not "additional" support needs is not workable. We need a different starting point: all our children and all their support needs.

Currently, the visibility of individual children and young people, and their conditions, relies on the determined advocacy of parents and carers or representational groups. This reinforces the competition between children and young people, and conditions, for attention and resources.

Consequently, whole groupings[10] identified in the additional support for learning legislation are invisible and have been completely overlooked. Also, it is important to be aware that those children and young people who do not express their needs and feelings openly, suffer the same distress as those who are unable to contain them.

In regard to children and young people who do express stress and distress through behaviour, there is significant work to be done to ensure that they, and all those involved in supporting them, are fully supported for principled and effective prevention and intervention.

The pressures in the system and the lack of visibility is also increasing stigma, exclusion and inequality within Additional Support for Learning. There is evidence of developing perceptions around children and young people who are viewed as either more or less "deserving" of attention and support. This is particularly noticeable in language around many of the children and young people with social, emotional or behavioural needs whose parents are perceived and described as "inadequate" or just "bad".

Key Processes

At operational level, these underpinning factors, which are combining to constrain or prevent effective implementation of the Additional Support for Learning legislation, are evident in the distortion of the very processes intended to widen access, through early and increased identification, planning and decision making.

These processes are too often being deployed as mechanisms for prioritising need in order to ration scarce resources. A very common example is where a diagnosis is required in order to access support services. Another is where individual planning processes result in a plan – but not the support actions the plan identifies as necessary.

In regard to those planning processes, there is considerable disappointment and scepticism about how GIRFEC[11]is operating for children and young people with additional support needs. This adds to significant confusion and frustration amongst professionals and families about when Coordinated Support Plans should be initiated as part of legal entitlement.

That confusion and misunderstanding is exacerbated by a widespread lack of understanding of relevant rights, by and between professionals, families, and children and young people themselves.

Parents and Carers

Hundreds of parents and carers told their individual, but common story to the Review. The key features were:

  • Hope and belief that a request for help to a public service would be responded to;
  • Frustration with lack of information and restricted communication;
  • Hurt and anger at being ignored or dismissed; and
  • Loss of confidence and trust.

This was as true of parents who are also professionals within education or other public services.

Hence, the language heard from hundreds of parents and carers by the Review of "fighting" and "battles."


Meanwhile, school staff feel under enormous pressure, often feeling unable to do the job they want. Some described feeling under siege and further devalued. At the same time, staff whose attitudes are not aligned to the principles and values of inclusion have their attitudes reinforced and justified.

Hence, the system level tensions become channelled into the reality of implementation for individual children and young people, their families and the staff closest to them.

It is not surprising that relationships become fraught and trust is lost on both sides – subsequently it is often hard to regain.

Concluding Comments

In summary, the key conditions for effective implementation of the legislation including resource alignment, active measurement for visibility and improvement, and aligned workforce development are not currently in place. These are the crucial processes identified by Implementation Methodology for developing and improving complex services in complex environments.[12]

Equally relevant are the crucial elements of learning from the developing influence of the "Kindness Agenda"[13] on Scotland's national public service policy development.

That work confirms that the barriers to successful implementation are organisational cultures of risk aversion, blame and a drive to hit targets, which are not meaningful for those with additional support needs.

Most significantly, the Kindness Agenda emphasises the importance of recognising and supporting positive relationships "Relational rather than Transactional"; meaning relationships first and processes second.

That is confirmed by so much of what the Review has heard and in the answers to the question "If things were difficult then got better what was it that changed?"

Without exception responses were framed in the language of : "she/he listened" "she/he cared" " she/ he just gets it" That applies to professionals commenting on management and leadership as well as children, young people, their families and staff who they have contact with.

Overall, the Review has found that there are disconnects and contradictions between what is stated as intention and expectation, the (mis)alignment of key processes at all levels of the system and the actual experience of children and young people, their families and those working most closely with them.



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