Has the term additional support needs simply become another way of saying special educational needs?

Friday 12 May

Dr Lio Moscardini, Senior Lecturer in the School of Education and Course Leader of the MEd in Inclusive Education at the University of Strathclyde talks about the confusion of common phrases when talking about the needs of looked after children at school.

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There is a problem in simply substituting one term for another. The concept of special educational needs applied to children with particular learning needs, usually based on some form of disability for example cognitive, sensory or physical impairment, communication difficulties or genetic condition. This meant that many vulnerable children were not recognised as being entitled to special help or recognition.

The concept of additional support needs applies to any child or young person who, for whatever reason, requires additional support for learning and this could be short-term. By taking into account the broader social and contextual factors that give rise to the need for support, legislation and policy in Scotland made clear that the adoption of the term additional support needs represented a significant conceptual departure from the idea of special educational needs. However, it seems that the term is now being used as a proxy for special educational needs to the detriment of a large group of children who are at risk of slipping through the cracks in the system.

Who needs additional support?

If we were to consider who the children might be, who at any time may require additional support for their learning and participation, would this be the same group of children as those currently within our schools formally recognised, and being counted, as having additional support needs?

As far as looked after children are concerned, the Additional Support for Learning Act 2004/2009 specifies the presumption ‘that all looked after children and young people have additional support needs unless the authority determine that they do not require additional support to enable them to benefit from school education’. It might be useful to consider this presumption in relation to the learning environment of looked after children. In other words, what educational support might particular looked after children require on account of a wide range of factors including their social and cultural experiences and is there a danger that this support comes to be overlooked if a particular child has not been formally recognised as having additional support needs? Also, to what extent is that additional support different from that required by other children who, for a range of reasons, might be experiencing barriers to their learning and participation in the classroom?

Similarities and unique differences

A number of years ago Profs. Brahm Norwich and Anne Lewis set out a useful model for considering a pedagogical response to particular children. Their model included two different positions. One position recognised a general differences view of learners with pedagogical responses focusing on what might be specific to that group while also recognising unique responses to individuals within that group. The alternative position was the recognition of the unique differences of learners and responding to the individual within the context of what is commonly available.

It is also worth recalling the argument made by Prof Sally Tomlinson in 1982 in her landmark book ‘A Sociology of Special Education’ in which she outlined two broad groups of children in the educational system who required support: those who she described as within normative categories with recognisable physical, sensory and severe disabilities and a much larger group of children who she described as within a non-normative category for whom there is no clear or agreed defining criteria. This group comprised of children who were low-attainers, had general learning difficulties and whose need for support would relate to social and emotional factors. Tomlinson’s most recent book ‘A Sociology of Special and Inclusive Education’ 2017 maintains this argument and seeks to explain the expansion of what she describes as an SEN industry.

I find Norwich and Lewis’s model and Tomlinson’s analysis useful when considering who the children are who are recognised and responded to on the basis of their perceived needs. It is notable, particularly now with the current and dominant rhetoric on closing the attainment gap, that a search through Education Scotland’s website (and this has been the case consistently over a number of years) reveals nothing on low-attainers or children with general learning difficulties. The webpage on additional support needs typically has a list of specific, categorical groups of learners. Notable too, is Graham Donaldson’s influential 2010 Report, Teaching Scotland’s Future, in which reference was made to children with additional support needs on five occasions, four of which were qualified with the phrase ‘particularly autism and dyslexia’. There are complexities in the collation of data of children with additional support needs which Prof Sheila Riddell and colleagues have highlighted. Nevertheless, it is clear that consistently over time, dating back to the so called ‘backward’ and ‘exceptional’ children in Victorian classrooms, and through various categories and descriptions of learners, that the largest group of learners requiring additional support within the system do not fit into a normative category.

Barriers to learning

It has also been evident in Scotland since the publication of the important HMI Progress report of 1978 that the most significant barrier to learning in schools is the learning environment. Yet there is persistence with calls from particular lobbying groups for more ‘training’ (sic) in the area of additional support needs. Any reification of the concept of additional support needs or misconstruing additional support needs as special educational needs is not helpful. It is worth considering whether or not the expressed need for development relates to more input in a general sense about policy, legislation and practice (and perhaps a clearer understanding of the concept of additional support needs) or whether they reflect Norwich’s general differences position with demands for more specific input relating to specific groups of learners and particular conditions. If the call is for the latter, then who will be privileged and who will be the ones left out? If, on the other hand, the focus is placed on the development of inclusive practice which allows appropriate support to individual children regardless, then consideration needs to be given to the attitudinal, structural and pedagogical issues which may either support or be acting as barriers to learning and participation and to the kind of professional learning required to address this.

The danger is that by applying the concept of additional support needs simply as a proxy for special educational needs the very children who the Act was designed to identify and support will continue to be overlooked and the focus will remain on particular groups of children rather than ensuring that every child receives the support required.

Topic: Education

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