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Supporting Needs Changes Futures

Currently, my local community is very concerned about proposed cuts to ASN provision in our schools. Needing to account for a budget shortfall, our council has decided that one of the ways of rectifying it is to “redesign” provision to remove Pupil Support Assistants from the classroom for any child who doesn’t require physcial handling or intimate care.

Anyone who has any experience with a child in this setting understands, instinctively, why this is suspect decision. But the Council seems to think we should take it on faith that it will all work out just fine.

I am attaching here my thoughts on that attitude to the futures of our children.

The Cost of The Proposed Highland Council ASN Redesign

There’s been a lot of coverage of the Highland Council’s 2019-20 budget-approved redesign of PSA/ASN support for children with additional support needs. Parents are expressing their concern and, in response, councilors and Council executives are saying the community should have faith and wait to see what happens. They say (as if it is comforting) that they will continue to “target support to those pupils with the greatest need.”

But this begs the question – which pupils have the “greatest” need? How do politicians determine validity or intensity of need? The Council has repeatedly said they will, “focus on providing the same levels of support for young people with severe and complex needs.” By this statement, it would appear that need is merely a function of mobility. If you can move on your own and use a toilet, you have no needs.

So what does that mean for those among the approximately 13,000 pupils with identified needs who do not require physical handling or intimate care? Needs such as: being academically advanced; Type 1 diabetes; English as a second language; depression; anxiety; dyslexia; self-esteem; young carers; parental bereavement; bullying; autism; PDA; Down Syndrome; dyspraxia.

Are their needs not “great”? Do those pupils matter less?

The Council has proposed to account for students without complex and severe needs with “School cluster approaches to supporting autism; Community based approaches to supporting young people with anxiety and mental and emotional health challenges…; and [t]he development of whole school approach to strategies for dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalcula.”

It almost sounds reasonable. Until you ask – what is a “school cluster approach”? What is a community-based approach to mental health (a supremely individual issue)? How do you support dyslexia, dyspraxia, or dyscalcula without PSAs scribing and supporting understanding in the classroom? What do these finely-crafted, yet oddly detail-deficient, words actually MEAN?

To understand that, we have to understand what PSAs do. Then we’ll know what will be gone. So let’s imagine a scenario, built from specifics of actual pupils currently supported by actual PSAs. To be fair to the Council, let’s also imagine that this “redesign” means only 1 PSA in all of the Highland Council will go away. No students with physical disabilities will lose support.

To simplify it, let’s say this 1 PSA works with only one student all week long (not the 3 or more students PSAs actually support each day). This one pupil is ASN Level 3 with no physical handling needs but has substantial need for emotional and social support in the classroom, in the canteen, and on the playground – in short, to survive within a mainstream school. The pupil, though academically bright, is unable to form relationships with her peers. Her anxiety prevents her from speaking in groups. She has been known to bolt from school due to impulsivity and a lack of danger awareness. Her executive functioning (planning skills) become over-stressed when she is anxious, meaning she’s paralyzed with indecision over the simplest tasks. She is 11 years old and has already expressed suicidal ideation due to her overwhelming sense of isolation and an awareness that she must work harder than her peers to do everything. With a delay in processing verbal information, she often can’t follow the teacher’s instructions to the class. When sudden changes occur or the pressure gets too much, she has meltdowns that include punching herself in the eyes and scratching her arms, often until they bleed.

This student struggles to go to school each day because of her anxiety. To battle that, to get herself into school, she focuses on the sense of security she gets from the structure her PSA gives her from the moment she arrives. The PSA greets her at the school door each morning and walks her out to her parents every afternoon; she sits with her during lunch in the classroom (the canteen is too noisy for her to eat). She helps the pupil find writing supplies and explains the teacher’s instructions when it goes too fast. When the PSA sees signs of pressure building, she guides the pupil through breathing slowly and counting to 10 to relax. She listens with compassion and understanding when the pupil cries because she has no friends. She speaks with the ASN teacher when she sees worrying changes in behavior so they can keep the parents informed and other professionals can be called in when needed. This PSA helps the pupil practice, builds her confidence, and cheers her on when she completes a class presentation for the first time ever. She helps her with her advanced reading assignments, allowing the classroom teacher to carrying on with the rest of the class. She bandages her scratches when they go too deep and gives her ice packs for her head when she has punched too hard.

When this one PSA goes: the pupil has no one to help her understand the teacher’s instructions; she falls behind in her work; her anxiety begins to rise, and she withdraws into her own world. No one notices because the classroom teacher has three other students with more obvious and urgent needs to accommodate. When pressed to speak in front of the class (because she’s done it before, so surely can do it again), she meltdowns and strikes herself as well as others. With an increasing disruption to the class, it is decided she must be moved to a room for those with “behavior problems.” She feels even more isolated, as well as embarrassed that she is unable to fix herself, to make herself do what she is supposed to do. Eventually, she refuses to go to school at all.

This is what ONE PSA means to a student. This is the cost of politicians determine what qualities as “great” need. This is the cost of not supporting a pupil because she can independently toilet and walks without aids.

CEO Donna Manson recently spoke to the press and said, “There is a lot of scaremongering going on.” I find myself wondering what she thinks is scaremongering. Stating the reality of how important are ASNs and PSAs to all students? Asking for details on the research they did before approving their proposal? When the stakes are so very, very high, do we not have an obligation to demand our government make decisions based on the reality of things, rather than the “hope” they have?

Here’s one more reality – our PSAs and ASNs spend years developing their skills. Years of specialist training, experience with strategy implementation, assessment of evolving need, emotional understanding, behavior management. How is the Council proposing to cover this loss of decades-worth of quality support? According to Donna Manson, they will “add two extra in-service days to the 2019/20 academic year to provide special needs training to teachers.”

Two WHOLE days? Oh, well, that’s OK, then. Why were we worried? Clearly, it is just that easy to “upskill” and replace the dedicated PSAs (and ASNs) who nurture, support, provide structure, and personally assist 3 or more students every day, to the emotional and educational benefit of all of our children. After all, these professionals are only “comfort blankets,” in the words of one councilor, who exist to perpetuate a system “where Need is dictated by Want.” Clearly, the PSAs are not vitally important in any genuine way that can’t be replaced by a weekend course in “special needs training.”

And what is the anticipated financial benefit? Currently, the HC ASN budget is £36.1m, which supports 1,253 full-time equivalent jobs. The proposed plan would save just shy of £6 million. This is 1/6 of the budget – or 209 FTE roles. 209. We have considered the realistic impact of losing only one PSA. Now multiply that impact by the 209 fewer specially-trained professionals in our classrooms with all of our children.

So what is the true impact, then, of this proposed redesign? It is minimizing the challenges faced by so many pupils, stating that they are not valid – they are, in fact, Wants and not Needs. It is treating these children without dignity and respect. It is preventing them from accessing their academic and social-relationship educations. And it is ensuring that, down the line, they are ill-prepared for achieving their full potential.

When the cost of getting it wrong is the mental health, lives, and futures of our children, we must be sure, not just trusting and hopeful. We need full consultation with professionals, educators, parents, support charities, and the communities affected, not just financial figures and assumptions based on comparing statistics without any qualitative detail to support them. We need creative solutions and, yes, of course, efficiency. But NOT at the cost of supporting very real needs – invisible though they may be.

-Carrie Watts, 7 April 2019

Supporting Needs Changes Futures
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