By Cat Thomson, Senior Development Officer, Enquire
The Young Ambassadors for Inclusion are aged between 12 and 18 and represent 22 of the 32 local authorities in Scotland. The group aims to:
- Share young people’s views and experiences of inclusion;
- Raise awareness of Additional Support for Learning with other pupils to reduce stigma and improve understanding;
- Improve school staffs understanding of inclusion;
- Work together to develop ways to develop and support inclusive education.
They are supported by Education Scotland, Enquire [the Scottish advice service for additional support for learning] and individual local authority staff.
In June, the young people took their messages about inclusion to the Scottish Cabinet.
“We want to be seen as individuals with our own set of unique strengths and skills.”
These are impressive words from Alistair, one of the Young Ambassadors for Inclusion who met Deputy First Minister and Education Secretary, John Swinney in June to share their views on inclusion and support in school.
During the meeting, 11 members of the group shared findings from their work. They were keen to raise issues they think it is important for policymakers, local authority staff, school leaders, teachers and support staff to hear and reflect on when making decisions about support for pupils with additional support for learning.
One of the first questions the Ambassadors considered was what inclusion means to them. Their comments make for interesting reading. Many of the young people saw inclusion as a positive thing making pupils feeling safe, accepted, and treated equally. Common messages were “everybody [should be] included in education regardless of need”, “being able to work together with a range of people”, “everybody involved, nobody left out” and “not being defined by any difficulties you have”.
A small number of Ambassadors talked about inclusion adding additional pressure to young people but the universal message was how incredibly important it is to young people to feel listened to, understood and supported. Comments included: “It’s good when we are listened to and asked what we need”, and “When staff have an understanding of different additional support needs and can understand certain behaviour it helps them understand why young people may act in a particular way.”
What works less well is when pupils feel excluded or unsupported: “Many class teachers and other staff do not have awareness of additional support needs, what that means for us and how to support in the classroom”, and “Pupils need access to all areas of the school and curriculum.”
A number of pupils wanted to encourage schools to give pupils with additional support needs the same opportunities as other pupils and not to make assumptions about their abilities, highlighting that sometimes trying something and not succeeding is better than not trying.
Some of the themes they identified from their work included: raising awareness, friendship and belonging, positive attitude and support.
“Whole school awareness of ASN can support much better understanding and reduce stigma and isolation”
“Taking opportunities to share that people are different and you should not make fun of them.”
Ambassadors recommended that all teachers should have training on inclusion and the different types of additional support for learning pupils may have and how this might affect them in school.
They felt more could be done in primary school to raise awareness of additional support for learning and called for zero tolerance of bullying of pupils with additional support needs.
They suggested holding pupil conferences, taking part in national awareness weeks, putting on school assemblies led by pupils, or developing awareness raising days about specific issues such as mental health or LGBT.
Friendship and belonging
“I didn’t really feel part of mainstream school.”
Ambassadors called for schools to help young people feel more confident, build friendships and feel included. Schools should provide opportunities to take part in activities with peers.
“Don’t segregate pupils with needs.”
“It helps to be patient.”
As one Inclusion Ambassador said to John Swinney: “We need to create positive stories about pupils with additional support need rather than focus on the negatives.”
Ambassadors felt schools should focus on raising awareness of the range of reasons a pupil may need support and how this might make a pupil feel in school, while also encouraging a more positive view of additional support needs.
“Supportive teachers in mainstream are crucial”
“Teachers need qualifications to work with pupils with additional support needs and medical needs.”
“Staff off and no replacement really affects learning”
Making it easy for pupils to ask for help and offer the right support
Sharing information about how pupils can ask for help and having supportive and empathetic teachers who can support pupil’s emotional issues was highlighted as helpful to encourage young people to ask for help when they need it.
Ambassadors stressed the importance of schools listening to pupils about the type of support they wanted in school. They also highlighted the impact of crucial support not being available to help them get the most out of school, with many reporting support had been reduced due to budget cuts. Others shared experiences of inconsistent staffing, and highlighted the impact this had on their learning and school experience.
Ambassadors encouraged schools to have a range of options for collected pupils views, including focus groups and questionnaires.
The Young Ambassadors for Inclusion are planning to create a pledge that schools can use to demonstrate their commitment to inclusion. They will also be involved in developing a support pack for schools, including a short film to raise awareness of inclusion, the range of additional support needs and the impact on pupils and their families.
This article also appears in August’s Children in Scotland magazine.