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Every teacher is an additional support for learning teacher

Posted by Paul Nisbet on the 15th May, 2023

I sometimes hear people talking about 'ASN learners' and 'ASL teachers' as though they are something different to the 'normal' or 'mainstream'. When over a third of learners in Scotland are identified as having an additional support need, it's clear that every teacher and educator is a practitioner of additional support for learning. Here are some thoughts that I hope will provoke reflection.

Additional support needs

'Additional support needs' is defined in the ASL Act 2004 [1] in terms of the impact of the support:

A child or young person has additional support needs for the purposes of this Act where, for whatever reason, the child or young person is, or is likely to be, unable without the provision of additional support to benefit from school education provided or to be provided for the child or young person.

The term 'additional support' with the Act is defined as

additional to, or otherwise different from, the educational provision made generally for children … and young people of the same age.

Who are 'ASN learners'?

I've heard people talk about 'ASN learners' and I don't think this is helpful because additional support needs may arise from a very wide range of situations or conditions (see the pie chart below created from the 2022 Scottish Government statistics [2]) and because needs are related to age and stage and the curriculum. We can't bracket all these pupils as 'ASN learners' because their needs are so very different. Well, you can, if you want, but it won’t help you to understand what the needs are or how to address them.

Sometimes I get the impression that people use the term 'ASN learner' to refer to learners who have a lower level of academic ability, or to learners with learning disability or general learning difficulties. I don't think this is appropriate or helpful. 

According to the Scottish Government figures, only 27.6% of learners who receive additional support have a learning disability or a moderate learning difficulty. I know that there are questions around the accuracy of these figures but it's evident that the majority of learners with additional support needs do not have a learning disability or difficulty.

Pie chart showing the numbers of learners who have additional support needs arising from a specific condition or situation. Learning disability 11,779. Dyslexia 27,180. Other specific learning difficulty (e.g. numeric) 27,231. Other moderate learning difficulty 31,129. Visual impairment 4,853. Hearing impairment	 3,740. Deafblind 69. Physical or motor impairment 8,322. Language or speech disorder 19,071. Autistic spectrum disorder 25,855. Social, emotional and behavioural difficulty 58,341. Physical health problem 16,194. Mental health problem	 9,549. Interrupted learning 8,236. English as an additional language 46,394. Looked after 8,727. More able pupil -. Communication Support Needs 12,311. Young Carer -. Bereavement 4,739. Substance Misuse 581. Family Issues 24,869. Risk of Exclusion 1,699. Other 24,373.


All teachers are 'ASL teachers'.

I've also heard people talk about 'ASN teachers' and I have problems with this too. I don’t think teachers teach 'additional support needs'  - what does that mean - someone who teaches 'needs', like literacy and numeracy? I'm slightly more comfortable with 'ASL teacher' because colleagues do provide additional support for and with learning.

The 2022 census data [2] has been widely reported, not least because it shows that 34.2% of all pupils have an additional support need (and 40.06% in secondary schools). While the percentage of learners with additional support needs in primary schools varies considerably across the country [3], from 10.9% in North Lanarkshire to 44.5% in Aberdeenshire (22.4% and 51.9% respectively for secondary), I think it's reasonable to conclude that every teacher in Scotland teaches children with additional support needs.

Every teacher is an additional support for learning teacher.

Bar chart with the percentage of primary pupils with additional support needs in each lcoal authority. Aberdeen City 36.5. Aberdeenshire 44.5. Angus 15.9. Argyll and Bute 27.3. City of Edinburgh 43.1. Clackmannanshire 26.7. Dumfries and Galloway 33.2. Dundee City 27.1. East Ayrshire 25.1. East Dunbartonshire 18.7. East Lothian 23.9. East Renfrewshire 20.3. Falkirk 25.9. Fife 18.7. Glasgow City 27.4. Highland 37.8. Inverclyde 27.2. Midlothian 32.0. Moray 35.4. Na h-Eileanan Siar 29.1. North Ayrshire 29.6. North Lanarkshire 10.9. Orkney Islands 29.4. Perth and Kinross 27.8. Renfrewshire 20.9. Scottish Borders 31.8. Shetland Islands 36.4. South Ayrshire 30.5. South Lanarkshire 23.7. Stirling 29.5. West Dunbartonshire 38.3. West Lothian 29.8. Grant aided 3.9.


The proportion of learners with additional support needs has been increasing year on year and last Friday Angela Morgan, author of the 2020 Review [4], was reported in an article in TES Magazine as asking whether we should drop the word 'additional' because it leads to unhelpful categorisation and it's possible that there will soon be more learners in secondary school who require additional support than not [5]. 

Certainly If we get to a point where a majority of pupils are "unable without the provision of additional support to benefit from school education", it suggests there something awry with either education in general and/or the concept or policy of additional support needs.

Do we need specialist ASL teachers?

Yes. Notwithstanding the previous discussion, I'm not arguing that class and subject teachers and pupil support assistants should have the skills and experience to teach and support all learners who have additional support needs. 

The GTCS Professional Standards [6] documentation does discuss additional support needs, and the GTCS Professional Guides provide useful advice on what is expected of teachers and how to meet the needs of learners with autism, dyslexia, visual impairment and deaf and neurodiverse learners. The updated ASL Action Plan [7] includes several initiatives to develop awareness and expertise of pupil support staff, student teachers, newly qualified teachers and experienced teachers at a universal level of staged intervention. 

However, some learners have more complex needs that require more specialist knowledge and experience. Teaching a student to read or write braille, for example, requires specialist skills and input from a Qualified Teacher of the Visually Impaired; or in our field of assistive technology, assessing for and introducing eye-gaze or switch access technology for high-tech communication should be undertaken by the class/school team around the child, with input from assistive technologists and other professionals such as speech and language and occupational therapists. It's not reasonable or practical to expect every class or subject teacher to have this level of specialism.

In CALL, with regard to assistive technology, we therefore try to provide professional learning opportunities at universal, targeted and specialist levels. 

Diagram showing CALL's professional learning offers: free webinars, In-person training, free online modules, online courses, 5 week courses, the 10 week Technology for ASN in Education course.

An additional support need is not a diagnosis, label, condition or situation.

Sometimes we hear people talking about a condition or situation as though it's an additional support need. This is not helpful. Dyslexia is not an additional support need, neither is visual impairment, nor is having English as an additional language, or being particularly able or talented. Being dyslexic or autistic or having a physical disability might result in a need for additional support in school, but not necessarily. 

A label does not tell us what someone's needs are: if you are visually impaired and have some sight, you may need large print or use technology to magnify learning materials, but if you are blind, you may use braille or a computer screen reader to access resources. The needs, and how we respond to them, are quite different.  The 'visual impairment' label tells us something, but not much about specific needs and our response must focus on the individual pupil and their situation rather than the label.

A learner with low vision may need larger text; a learner who has little or no sight may need braille.

A dyslexic pupil may need support to access orthographic text, or to spell, or to organise concepts and learning, but we can't assume that all do. Some dyslexic young people I work with don't experience challenge with reading but find that spelling or processing information are the main barriers to learning. The dyslexic 'label' is the same but the needs arising from dyslexia are different. 

It's very easy to fall into a habit of referring to a condition or situation as an additional support need - even Angela Morgan's ASL Review, which criticises Scottish Government guidance [8] on the basis that it "unhelpfully complicates people's understanding of what an additional support need may be by listing a selection of conditions" makes this mistake. Appendix C of the Review offers a table that lists twenty-eight 'additional support needs' alongside associated issues and barriers to learning - a few examples are below. (The inverted commas round "Additional Support Needs" are mine.) 

"Additional support need"Associated issues which act as barriers to learning
AdoptionImpacted by trauma and loss; struggle with attachment and relationships; need support to recover from trauma; readiness to learn affected; experiences a range of behavioural issues.
Autistic spectrumDifficulty understanding and participating in social communication; struggles with social interaction; problems with developing and sustaining positive relationships; difficulties in social imagination; may think very rigidly.
Learning difficultiesSocial, emotional and intellectual abilities may not match chronological age; can feel different to and isolated from peers; may mask learning difficulties; wide range of learning difficulties need understood in context of individual child.
Speech disorderDifficulty in making sounds in speech; stuttering; problems pronouncing sounds; struggling to communicate with others; difficult with self confidence and self esteem; impact on relationships with others; impact on emotional wellbeing.

'Adoption', 'autistic spectrum', 'learning difficulties' and 'speech disorders' are not additional support needs. They are conditions or situations that may or may not give rise to a need for additional support. 

If we use a diagnosis, condition or label when referring to a learner or groups of learners who has/have additional support needs, we are in danger of:

Focus on additional support needs, not labels.

A great strength, for me, of the additional support needs concept, is that it focuses on what we need to do to help a learner to learn rather than on assessing and identifying a condition - although accurately identifying the underlying causes that give rise to the need for additional support is very important.

One aspect of this is that learners with different diagnoses or labels may have similar support needs. 

Going back to our learners with visual impairment: they often benefit from digital learning resources which can be magnified, viewed in high-contrast, and read with text-to-speech or a braille display. Other learners who need support accessing text, for other reasons, will also benefit from digital materials - a pupil who has English as an additional language can use translation software, or a person with a physical support need who can't manipulate physical books can use a digital version. This is another reason why it's so important to design our response to needs rather than labels.

An example: in 2007, Scottish Government commissioned Dr Stuart Aitken and I to investigate the need for learning resources in accessible formats for pupils in Scotland. Our Books for All report was published in 2007 [9] and we found that provision of books in accessible formats was OK for learners with a visual impairment compared to learners who had difficulty accessing learning resources due to, for example, dyslexia or physical disability. This is because it is generally accepted that people who have visual impairment require large print or braille and transcription services were in place in most local authorities, whereas there were no transcription services creating accessible resources for learners who had difficulty physically holding a book or turning pages. 

By focussing on needs rather than labels, we were able to take a wider perspective to consider the needs of all learners, rather than just one group, and this led to significant improvements. We managed to get the copyright licencing changed so that accessible resources could be created and shared for all learners with 'print disabilities' and we created the Books for All Database to provide accessible textbooks. 

Needs relate to the learning environment.

The Act states that additional support may be required in relation to the "educational provision made generally" and so if only 10.9% of learners in North Lanarkshire primary schools are identified as having additional support needs, perhaps that's because the educational provision in the primary schools in that area are very good? Or is it an indication that ASN are under-reported?

It is a reminder though that additional support needs are related to the learning and teaching environment, as illustrated by the visual below from the Addressing Dyslexia Toolkit [10]. The encouraging aspect of this model, for me, is that we do have an opportunity and ability to change the environment and so address the needs of our learners.

Diagram showing that dyslexia may impact oral language, organisational ability, number skills, phonological awareness, sequencing and directionality, reading fluency.

A call for clarity

There are a great many challenges and changes in Scottish education at the moment and it's important that we have clarity about the terminology and concepts to help us support all our learners. I hope that these thoughts will help. Next up: 'What are complex additional support needs?' 


[1] Education (Additional Support for Learning) (Scotland) Act 2004. Available from https://www.legislation.gov.uk/asp/2004/4/contents

[2] Scottish Government (2023) Schools in Scotland 2022: summary statistics.

[3] Seith, E. (2023) How many pupils in your area have additional support needs? TES Magazine 21 March 2023.

[4] Morgan, A. (2020) Review of additional support for learning implementation: report. June 2020.  

[5] Seith, E. (2023) Inclusion failure ‘risks a return to an institutional model’. TES Magazine 11 May 2023.

[6] GTCS (2021) Overview of additional support needs in the Professional Standards.

[7] Scottish Government (2022) Additional Support for Learning review: action plan - November 2022 update.

[8] Scottish Government (2017) Additional support for learning: statutory guidance 2017.

[9] Nisbet, P., Aitken, S. (2007) Books for All: accessible curriculum materials for pupils with additional support needs.

[10] Addressing Dyslexia Toolkit (2020) What is Dyslexia.


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