Teachers under strain amid special needs kids rise

Picture: Ian Georgeson

Picture: Ian Georgeson

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TEACHERS will “collapse” under the strain of looking after surging numbers of youngsters with special needs in the Capital’s mainstream classrooms, parents and union leaders have warned.

Education bosses have admitted almost all of Edinburgh’s special schools are close to full after a near eight per cent rise in the number of pupils with additional support needs (ASN) between 2012 and 2013 – and that further growth will have to be met in “mainstream provision”.

As city leaders weigh up proposals to slash £1.06 million from the ASN budget over the next four years, parents said passing responsibility for the city’s rapidly increasing population of special needs pupils to non-specialist classrooms would be “catastrophic”.

And they said the shift would lead to a jump in teacher stress and sickness absence, more mental illness among children and a blow to the learning outcomes of all pupils as staff are “distracted” from core work.

Chris Heggie, 50, whose ten-year-old son, Dylan, has Asperger’s syndrome and is on a low-dose course of Prozac to treat stress caused by school work at Nether Currie Primary, said: “I think it will be catastrophic. I know child mental health services are getting more and more referrals from children in mainstream schools – they are snowed under because mainstream schools cannot cope.

“This will just cause teachers more stress and anxiety, which will result in more sickness and cost to the council.”

Within specific areas of specialist support, increases over the 2012-13 period were even greater – the number of children requiring help for spectrum early-years autism leapt by more than half, with a 26 per cent jump in those needing “exceptional behaviour” 
assistance.

Overall, 8514 youngsters, or 18 per cent of the total school age population, had “significant” additional needs in 2013, a 37 per cent rise on 2006.

Professor Ben Paechter, assistant dean at Edinburgh Napier University, whose 12-year-old son has Asperger’s and attends James Gillespie’s High, said: “Ultimately every child’s education will suffer as unsupported teachers are distracted and some collapse under the strain. Targeting cuts at the city’s most vulnerable disabled children makes no practical sense.”

Lindsay Law, parent representative on the education committee, said all families would be “worried” about moves to place more responsibility on mainstream schools which are already under pressure from wider savings 
targets.

Alan McKenzie, acting general secretary at the Scottish Secondary Teachers Association, said the move would lead to a diminished service for all pupils.

But education leaders insisted new ASN investment over the cuts period would mean a boost to overall 
spending.

Councillor Paul Godzik, the city’s education leader, said: “We are looking very closely at the budget proposals for additional support for learning services, but the net impact of all the savings proposals and additional investment is growth of 2.32 per cent by 2017-18. This reflects the council’s commitment to protect this area at a time of reduced overall council funding.

“Any savings will focus primarily on management efficiencies, not cuts in frontline services.”

‘THE SITUATION IS ONLY GOING TO GET WORSE’

AIDEEN McCourt, 44, has a nine-year-old son, Connor, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s and is in P5 at Fox Covert RC Primary.

She said maintaining capacity in special schools amid a rapid rise in the number of additional needs pupils would be crucial.

While praising the quality of service her son has received, she is worried about the lack of special schools space as city leaders seek savings of £1.06 million in the wider ASN budget.

And she warned the “knock-on effect” on other children would be severe.

She said: “It’s only going to get worse if special schools are overcrowded and not taking any more kids – the budgets are stretched to the limit as it is.

“How are they going to make that work if they are going to cut even more? Connor sometimes needs extra help to support him so he doesn’t bother the other kids and keep him focused.

“I’d be afraid help like that will be affected if money is taken away.”