2007 - 2022

Rounding Up: comments on the Review of Additional Support for Learning Implementation

Question 1: round 30.9 percent to one significant figure.

Question 2: what is the difference between correlation and causation?

Question 3: how do you become a statistic?

The furore over SQA moderation of estimated results for exams not held in spring 2020 has shown that young people are prepared to speak out when they perceive injustice; but has also highlighted the dearth of considered public debate about our school system. In June 2020, while we were mainly preoccupied with other things, a review of additional support for learning, commissioned by the Scottish Government and independently chaired by Angela Morgan, was published. It has passed largely without comment. You can read the review HERE.


According to the report, 30.9 percent of the school age population face additional barriers to learning: 216,000 of 700,000 people in our schools. This, as Morgan notes, is a fair number of people.

30.9 percent caught my attention because of its precision. This ‘.9’ suggests a conscious decision not to round up to ‘31 percent’. This pseudo-accuracy, I would suggest, is unhelpful, given the above. These official statistics only count those who are recorded by schools as being supported, which is not the same number as those who have a significant difficulty with school learning. In my experience, children can face substantial difficulties with school learning but will not appear in any statistics. If this is replicated reasonably widely, then maybe half of school children will have additional support needs. (Indeed one of the ‘top three’ state secondaries in the country has 30 percent of students with recorded support needs, suggesting immediately that the proportion nationwide is far higher). I would say we can confidently round up, not just to 31 percent, but up to 40 or 50 percent, or more.


Eighty percent (79.2 if you prefer) of the 216,000 recorded as receiving additional support do not have a formal ‘plan’ or status as disabled. They are conceptually herded for stats purposes into a catch-all ‘other’ category of additional needs that ‘are being supported’.

There is a double dynamic of othering at play here. Not only are those who are being given informal support ‘othered’ in relation to those who have ‘official’ disabilities; but also those as yet unknown number who struggle unsupported and unrecorded are an invisible group of ‘others’. This then calls into question the very notion of ‘additional support need’ as something that is Other. Instead perhaps we should view young people who find formal learning pretty straightforward as the exception. The education system would be designed around the assumption that having difficulty with formal school learning is the norm.

Causation and correlation

While, as many commentators including young people appealing their exam moderation have rightly pointed out, there is clear association between poverty, disadvantage and educational attainment, I would argue that the picture is more complex.

There is a correlation between poverty and additional support needs. Furthermore, there is a correlation between additional support needs and lower attainment. I would argue that the causative factor is in fact additional support needs.

For a young person who does not face any of these adversities, learning may be relatively straightforward; they will therefore succeed by their own efforts and the support of teachers, in a school where average attainment is lower.

On a controversial note, I suggest that well-off, relatively privileged young people with individual factors that mean they find learning very difficult, will, despite their privilege, also fail to achieve their potential. Our system should ‘get it right’ for every child.

What is good about this review?

While the Morgan Review prioritises the views of children and young people, and provides a child-friendly summary, it found it difficult to gather their views in its short time frame; therefore one main recommendation is greater involvement of children and young people in decision making.

It highlights the disconnect between the laudable aims of policy and its implementation. In particular, the formal exam-based system creates a culture in which many young people are disregarded and undervalued.

In my view, the most valuable aspects of the report is the way it pays attention to language, professional cultures and power. For example, the language of deficit and ‘support needs’ presents young people as a burden rather than an asset. This combines with the belief system of teachers who see it is not their job to teach children who cannot reach traditional academic standards. Often, individual situations are only redeemed by the arrival of one professional who ‘gets it’. Essential skills of relationship building with children are undervalued professionally. Relationships between parents and schools deteriorate, and are difficult to repair, with staff feeling under siege and parents feeling dismissed as overly demanding when simply asking for what has been promised by the stated policies.

Practice is skewed by attitudes about ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ children, the latter being those whose behavioural and emotional problems can be laid at the door of bad, feckless parents. Currently the resource allocation system operates on a basis of ‘who shouts the loudest’, generally the articulate parents. Learning support is regarded as a specialism; and while this has advantages, it means these young people are largely someone else’s problem. How young people achieve their potential is about all aspects of their life, not just formal education, which means all public services and civil society have to step up rather than ask schools to do everything. In the climate of austerity, and, given the correlation between poverty and additional support needs, resources tend to be expended on planning, rather than actual support to young people.

The remit of Morgan’s Review was to consider the implementation of the relevant legislation, how additional support for learning works in practice; and to recommend how practice could be enhanced through better use of current resources. Where the Review lacks strength, not surprisingly, is in its recommendations, which sound as if they could apply to any area of the welfare state: improved communication, values-driven leadership, better training and professional development, services to work together, look at the whole person.

Beyond changing attitudes

The 2020 exams furore provides an excellent opportunity to rethink the system. We currently have a system of double-speak: exams are the core around which the whole formal schooling system is constructed; but when young people are not awarded what they hoped it tells them, ‘don’t worry, exams are not that important’. I am not going to rehearse here the arguments for moving away from a system where formal annual exams are the gold standard of attainment.

Alongside this, a serious look is required at how education is funded, not just how much money is spent in total. The Review’s remit was to consider implementation within existing resources. Consideration of the financial dimension of Additional Support for Learning implementation lies with the Audit Scotland thematic review of Additional Support for Learning, planned to start by the end of 2020.

Again, I would question this distinction; the way in which as in many policy areas, we can come up with aspirational recommendations, only to be brought down to earth by the big ‘but…’ of Resources.

If the Morgan Review has been received by silence, how much public debate will there be when the Audit Scotland report? Can we design a system that uses more valid means of assessment, rather than assume exams as the gold standard. In the meantime, can we shift a culture that perceives those who find formal learning hard not as a drain on resources but an asset to every school. Will it consider the ways in which funding could support a system designed to help all young people fulfil their potential, regardless of their parents?



Comments (6)

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  1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

    As it would now appear that almost identical ‘moderation’ procedures have been adopted in the Four Nations and it will be very interesting to see how Labour in Wales have faired.
    I hope that everybody can calm down and design a moderation system fit for the 3rd millennium. However, before we start out I have one simple question, who are the SQA? Are they for instance teachers of the subject they are ‘moderating’ or are they a bunch of ‘failed’ academics supplementing their pensions? One thing is certain that future exam results must be based on the student’s achievements and not on the past performance of their school or the Postcode area. In fact, there is almost a cast-iron case for ‘blind assessment & moderation’.

  2. Jim Bennett says:

    A good article, highlighting issues related to a important issue almost entirely missed in public discussion.

  3. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Much of what Ms Brown is arguing makes sense and is desirable, but changing the current system will take several years, probably, more than a decade. So, we also need to seek to try to avoid blaming and recrimination and learn lessons from an unprecedented set of circumstances where, as a society, we had, often, ‘to make it up as we went along’. Crises change attitudes and during much of the pandemic, despite the gloom-mongering of the media, we saw a great resurgence in neighbourliness and the value of community and of an understanding of the ‘common good’ and ‘key workers’. The Neoliberal hegemony has been exposed for the fraud it is, and its transfer of wealth and power from the many to the few.

    The decision of the SG, today, was a pragmatic one and a humane and humble one. I hope that there are enough people on all sides of the political landscape who are prepared to conduct themselves collaboratively and constructively for the common good.

  4. SleepingDog says:

    It is not clear from the article, but is there a shift from individual assessment to learning in small teams under Curriculum for Excellence? I can think of one or two ways in which highly-integrated team-based learning could go horribly wrong, but on the other hand I can think of more ways in which it could go right. Harnessed properly, the collective intelligence of any class of children should be greater than the potential of any individual. The greatest gift of an educational system could be giving them the means to prove this to themselves.

  5. Anndrais mac Chaluim says:

    The problem is that assessment has been designed to do two things, neither of which is student-centred. The first is to evaluate the system’s performance in meeting productivity targets. The second is to grade students for future employment and the associated distribution of social goods according to merit.

    As a society, we measure the quality of our school system in terms of examination pass rates; hence the need for the moderation of exam results (or what we substitute in their absence). To remain credible, pass rates must remain roughly the same year on year and must, therefore, be adjusted accordingly; modest increases, year on year, are heralded as progress, but large deviations from the norm cast doubt on the veracity of the assessment.

    Accordingly, exam results are moderated every year to keep the statistics respectable. This year was no different. The only difference this year was that, in the absence of exam results, the performance of the schools system was measured against teachers’ estimates of what these would have been had the examinations gone ahead, and these estimates produced results that deviated far too much from the norm to be statistically credible. Consequently, these results had to be more heavily moderated.

    This year’s assessment also failed in its second function, to differentiate students for the purpose of making a just distribution of reward. To put it bluntly, teacher assessment produced too many successes and not enough failures. How do you fairly allocate scarce university and college places, how do you fairly allocate career opportunities, when you have an over-abundance of suitably qualified candidates? This year’s assessment has produced gradings that have failed recruiters in their need to separate the wheat from the chaff, gradings that aren’t ‘credible’ in this sense either. Again, those gradings had to be more heavily moderated as a result.

    For as long as assessment is about measuring the productivity of a system and ranking merit, there will be a need for moderation. The only way to avoid the need for moderation is to shift the political emphasis from schooling’s social function to its educational function; it needs to be more about the individual child’s ‘flourishing’ – the realisation of his or her full potential, whatever that might be – than about his or her relative merit or the system’s performance in meeting political targets.

    Child-centred education would certainly ‘call into question calls the very notion of “additional support need”.’ Every child needs support to flourish, and the nature of that support will vary from child to child according to his or her own individual learning needs. Education as flourishing cannot be delivered on a quasi-industrial model, whereby quantities of more or less standardised units of raw material are processed on a production line, with some ‘additional support’ bolted on to the process to accommodate units that deviate from the norm.

    Ideally, every child should have a personalised ‘care plan’ towards his or her flourishing, and that plan should be resourced according to each child’s individual needs rather than according to the politics of competing costs and the ‘othering’ discriminations of ‘special needs’.

    I believe that most within the teaching profession would agree with this and currently do their utmost, with the resources available to them, and within the limits of possibility imposed on them by the culture of the current political governance of education, to do the best they can for the children who pass through their care.

    What’s required is a radical change in culture within the Scottish government in relation to education, alongside a radical redistribution of resources to support the teaching profession’s undoubted commitment to our children’s educational wellbeing.

    If nothing else is learned from the current débâcle, I hope this is.

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