Over my career, spanning 35 years, 20 of them in Support for Learning, there has been a radical change in notions about provision for children and young people who do not seem to learn as quickly or as easily as their peers. This is reflected in the language we use to describe such learners. We moved from speaking about handicap and educational sub-normality to Special Educational Needs after the Warnock Report in 1978. In Scotland ‘SEN’ was replaced in 2004 with the term Additional Support Need, which references very able pupils as well as a wide range of other non-conforming learners.   helpremedial



Enhanced or elaborated curricular has seceded to a curriculum for excellence for all. Integration has transmuted into Inclusion and Equality. ‘Remedial’ teachers became ‘support for learning’ teachers, with individual tuition being only one of 5 roles: Consultancy, Staff Development, Co-operative Teaching, Liaison, Direct Tuition. The most important role, in my estimation, is that of change agent through consultancy and staff development. It is frequently the SFL teacher who can support change at the classroom level in her/his work directly with young people and their teachers.


The medical mode, wherein the child at the centre has a deficit to be adjusted, has been rejected. That’s the theory at least. Over the decades there has been a growing awareness of the ways in which learning is socially situated; a developing understanding that learning difficulties can be created or fostered by inadequate teaching, inappropriate pedagogy or insufficient resources. Deficiencies are no longer seen as solely located in the individual learner, nor, as in previous uses of now-disputed concepts such as IQ, are they understood as fixed and immutable.



The change to a social model of learning difficulties in which all children can be enabled to learn by improving and diversifying social, material and cultural contexts is, I would suggest, not fully complete. It is still too tempting to assign individual children’s lack of achievement to their failings rather than to an insufficiency in the educational environment to support them to learn. The very existence of a service such as mine – the Dyslexia Support Service, within an Outreach Team which functions in addition to a coterie of support for learning teachers and assistants across every school in the region – implies that the reality does not always reflect the rhetoric.


This is not to say that class teachers don’t need support in identifying why and in what way some children differ in their approaches to learning from others. Nor am I suggesting that practitioners such as myself, with a more specific focus and expertise, do not have a role to play in offering ideas and strategies for teachers to help learners to develop skills and understanding. Clearly the sharing of expertise, materials, resources, tips among educationalists is always a good thing.


It is axiomatic that difficulties with literacy greatly inhibit access to learning and need to be addressed as a matter of urgency, especially in the early years of primary school. So I am not suggesting that the support teacher is redundant. I am suggesting, however, that a fundamental function of a support teacher is to challenge negative thinking about children with literacy difficulties and to enable inexperienced readers and writers to demonstrate knowledge, skills and understanding without the barrier of print. A two-fold approach is necessary: one to support a child in becoming as fluent a reader and writer as possible; and two, to focus on strengths so that the learner may construct her or his own understanding. The balance of this focus inevitably alters with the age and stage of the child. By the upper primary school, an emphasis upon phonics, spelling and decoding text may be less efficient – and certainly less motivating – than enabling children to use video presentations, podcasts, tools for planning and organising, digital voice recorders, speed reading, higher order thinking skills, electronic word banks and so on.