Making a step change for our youngsters who need our assistance the most

Making a step change for our youngsters who need our assistance the most

by Elizabeth Smith
article from Monday 26, September, 2016

THROUGHOUT all the welcome debate about how to raise attainment, there is one group of youngsters who could be forgiven for feeling a bit left out. That is those who have additional support needs.

The data from local authorities varies greatly in terms of those who are defined as requiring additional support but there appears to be some consistency in recent data which suggests that nationally 1 in 5 youngsters need that crucial assistance. That is a large number of young people and so their demands on teachers and resources are significant. Groups like the children's charities and the Scottish Children's Services Coalition have done pioneering work to expose the extent of the resourcing problem and the challenges faced by these youngsters and their families. 

Be in no doubt – there is some superb work taking place across the country, work which I have seen and heard about first hand in places such as Falkland School, the New School and Ochil Towers in my own constituency region. But that work cannot yield the best results if we do not have enough focus on the resources required to help them. 

One of the key issues in the debate about teacher workload is the need to devote more attention to those who benefit most from one to one or small group teaching. Many teachers will tell you that this is becoming increasingly difficult because their professional expertise is being stretched to the limit. I know the Scottish Government is taking these matters seriously but it really does need to act.

Besides this however, we should also make use of the evidence that demonstrates the  success made with low achieving youngsters, who may or may not always be receiving additional support. One such area of success is the STEP project developed by former Scotland rugby star Kenny Logan (pictured).

Kenny recognised that whilst physical exercise is an important part of school life, little research existed to assess the impact of physical activity and sport on the holistic development of children, including their academic progress.  He knew that children are now far less active in their home lives than in previous generations, and he questioned whether this could also be contributing to declining literacy levels and weaker academic performance. In particular, could the attainment gap within primary education be tackled with a different approach which addresses pupils’ physical and emotional needs? 

Kenny's STEP project involves pupils undertaking two exercise sessions each day for only 10 minutes each, which focus on the core physical skills of balance, eye-tracking and coordination. In short, it is a physical literacy programme, which is tailored to each individual participant.  

The Programme has already been running in the US for three years and its success has prompted educational leaders in a number of US states to implement STEP in their schools as a tool to improve and accelerate progress and learning for pupils in the bottom quartile of the ability range. Those who completed the programme saw significant improvements in academic performance, sporting ability and emotional wellbeing. 

Here are just three of the headlines:

  • 86% of pupils who were below reading age target at the start of the pilot moved on to the target or above it by the end. 
  • 81% of teachers reporting improvements in emotional functioning. Classroom behaviour improved, pupils’ self-esteem increased.
  • 91% of pupils reported that they found their school work easier and believed they could achieve more. Their parents reported positive changes at home. 

Following the US success, STEP has also now achieved similar results with pilot studies in England and I very much hope that it will soon do the same in Scotland. Kenny was an inspiration on the rugby field and I believe he can also be an inspiration for many youngsters who feel left out and that they can never succeed at school. They can, and we must give them that chance.

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