It’s time to make a change, not shift the problem

Both the UK and Scottish governments are focusing on education and boosting attainment. As they stand both strategies look set to fail young people with additional support needs

Education is always guaranteed to make the news. Whether it’s the revival of discussions over grammar schools or the commitment to closing the attainment gap across income bands, one aspect of the debate is clear: people in power accept there are things that need fixing.

The problem is, governments north and south of the border are both working on solutions that, in different ways, only play to their galleries. Driving up achievement is the focus. What that means in practice is often conveniently put to one side.

Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the NUT, pointed out this week the UK government’s green paper on grammar schools makes absolutely no mention of provision for young people with special educational needs. Nothing. Nix. 0%. They simply aren’t there.

In Scotland, the situation is not so different. Dig as deep as you like into John Swinney’s pronouncements, you won’t find much about young people experiencing disrupted education because of illness, through having disabilities schools can’t manage effectively, or as a result of learning difficulties.

Systems pay lip service to lifelong learning, but young people unequipped to fit the neat boxes defined by the education system face a much tougher task to get their achievements, interests and potential documented in a way employers and higher education institutions will recognise and accept – no matter how highly functioning or able they may be.

That in itself is a serious flaw, and leaves an estimated five children in every classroom* at increased risk of poverty.

For those unable to attend school consistently, for health reasons or because of exclusion, it can become almost impossible to find a way back into education further down the line. Compare this with Norway, where a flexible upper school leaving age, and the right to complete educational entitlements into adulthood, mean all is not lost for a teenager who missed a year or two of school. Years can be repeated, adults can re-enter the education system. Here, as there, being able to get your life on track should not be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

We have to consider, too, how we’re capturing and measuring young people’s attainments. I met one 20-year-old whose passion is botany, who at age 14 catalogued the trees in his local area. Latin species names, their contribution to environmental biodiversity, guidelines to effective woodland management – I worked for the Forestry Commission in a previous life, and his project had a depth and scope to it far beyond his years. He could put his work in the wider research context and make it interesting, too. It gained him precisely nothing, because the criteria against which he was being measured at that stage in his education simply didn’t accommodate such engagement and research in that particular topic.

“One size does not fit all” may be an increasingly tired cliché, but until we have systems that are flexible enough to meet real-life needs we will keep hearing it, again and again.

At the recent Autism Europe International Congress in Edinburgh I heard Senne Pol of GGZ Eindhoven speak about research among older people with Asperger’s Syndrome. Many were incredibly smart individuals who had had top level careers in science, the civil service, finance. I found myself thinking of the young people I’ve interviewed during the Life on the Edge of the Cliff project, most not in paid employment and all notably underemployed.

How much talent are we wasting?

Too many young people with Asperger’s Syndrome, ADHD and Tourette’s Syndrome are missing opportunities because services and support agencies are not recognising and helping them overcome the barriers that exist.

The bedrock has to be an education system that recognises the extent and complexity of their challenges, and responds with the understanding and flexibility that will give them the best possible chance of achieving qualifications that match their ability, potential and aspirations. This includes recognition of learning that goes beyond the boundaries of the curriculum; an approach that aims at integration, not just inclusion; and an increased focus on the purpose of education, not only the means of its delivery.

Current debates around education and attainment are missing a trick if they overlook this group. An education system that doesn’t take their needs into account will not reduce inequality, simply shift it to another group of young people. Nor will it help a significant number of academically able, skilled young people make their contribution in the world. Without the keys that unlock doors to employment and opportunity, their path to financial stability, physical and mental health and independent living could be a dead end.

Then we, as well as they, may end up the poorer.

*“At least five children in every classroom have some kind of learning difficulty” (


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