Page last updated at 12:38 GMT, Wednesday, 30 July 2008 13:38 UK

Concerns at special needs changes

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Jessie Myers on her last day at primary school.

Some tribunal systems in England and Wales - the Care Standards Tribunal, the Mental Health Review Tribunal and the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (Sendist) - are about to merge, although the Special Educational Needs Tribunal in Wales will not be included.

What will this merger mean for children with special learning needs?

On the last day of term at Bentfield Primary School in Essex, some 10 and 11-year-olds discuss how upset they feel about leaving.

"I'm sad because I'm not going to see some of my friends any more," says one.

Starting out at secondary school is a daunting, sometimes terrifying prospect.

But it will be made easier in September because these girls will be among at least some of their friends.

A year ago, it was not clear whether their classmate Jessie would be joining them.

"Jess is just Jess but she has lots of labels," says her mother, Jane Myers.

"One of those labels is that she has profound and multiple learning difficulties. She's a wheelchair user and she has no verbal communication."

Disagreement

Children with special educational needs like Jess will be affected by the radical changes to the way decisions taken by local authorities in England and Wales, about where they go to school, can be challenged by their parents.


The tribunal isn't simply deciding on factual questions

Former tribunal chair David Wolfe

Jess's mum took on her local education authority under the existing system.

"The LEA were suggesting that on three different points they disagreed with Jessie going to a mainstream school, things like it would be prejudicial to the benefit of other children, cost implications, that she would be a distraction," she explains.

"We won on every single count."

Campaigners are worried about plans to cut the period parents like Jane now have to prepare their case after lodging an appeal. It is currently six weeks.

If reduced, they fear it will mean parents are at a disadvantage against well briefed local authorities.

"Many parents only come to the realisation that they're not going to get what they want through negotiation or mediation, right up to the deadline," said Jane McConnell, chief executive of the charity the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (Ipsea).

Evidence

But not everyone agrees that it is a bad idea.

Jean Kinloch is in the unusual position of having sat on both sides of the current system.

She has been an education officer for Wiltshire County Council and is the parent of a son with special educational needs.

"I think it's very important if new evidence arises, it should be put before the tribunal whenever it arises," she said.

"But, at the moment, I think it's withheld because it puts the authority on a wrong foot when it comes to the hearing."

Some lawyers too are alarmed about the pace and the scale of the reform.

Barrister David Wolfe gave up his post as a chair of the Sendist tribunal in late July.

"The tribunal isn't simply deciding on factual questions, who said what and so on. It's actually deciding something much more subtle which is: 'What does this child need?' " he said.

"The concern, and I think a lot of people share this concern, is whether the new regime will properly allow the tribunal to do that."

Law in Action was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 1600 BST on Tuesday 29 July. You can find more information, listen again or download a podcast at www.bbc.co.uk/lawinaction


We asked for your comments, a selection of which are below.

My child aged 7 has severe dyslexia and dyspraxia, however the school failed to diagnose this and I had to do it privately. Now I have the proof they are refusing to statement my child! What is the point of giving the school the money, if they fail to diagnose and support your child needs?
Anon, Gwent

I too have been through the tribunal 'mill' as my son James is in the SEN 'camp'. I tend to agree that the system is failing miserably if expensive lawyers are involved. Having experienced really good special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs) at his mainstream schools, and received assistance from a strong supportive local Parent Partnership, the outcomes were good. I am now a volunteer parent advisor and find many parents are starved of vital information....so are government departments failing them?
P Hodgkinson, Walsall

I'm a volunteer with the charity (IPSEA) mentioned in this article. IPSEA can provide help with writing reasons for appeal, case statements, and if the case if complicated or there are particular issues can provide someone to represent the parents at SENDIST. It is not true parents are using expensive lawyers to clog up the system. Local authorities do however waste public resources hiring expensive lawyers to fight cases where the child clearly has special needs, and the LEA are clearly not complying with their legal duties. This is particularly true in cases concerning a statutory assessments. Anna, London

I had to fight my local authority for a statement for my child. I wanted her in mainstream and I've just taken her out due to the school not meeting certain parts of her statement. Mainstream education is getting away with a lot of things, and there seems to be no punishment against the schools as nobody cares.
Sarah, Leeds

My autistic son is in a mainstream secondary with a statement and failing. The school told the LEA that they could meet his needs, even though they exclude him regularly. There just aren't enough specialist schools and trained teachers to support children. The LEA don't always place children appropriately but schools think they can cater for a wide range of needs properly but in many cases they just can't. Many parents actually do realise that inclusion doesn't mean sitting a child in a mainstream classroom, but have no other choice. Schools collect the funding while some children still fail and nothing is offered to support them further. There needs to be a change in the whole SEN system.
Parent

Many if not most parents cannot afford cheap lawyers let alone expensive lawyers. Local Authorities are funded from the bottomless public purse and employ their own legal people anyway.
Paul, Norfolk

My son is very bright, but with severe autism, hyperactivity and communication problems. His time in mainstream school was horrific and ended with his exclusion. Offered no alternative education, and unable to cope at home, we were forced to threaten legal action against the LEA to get our son into a specialist autism school, which was the only school that could manage his needs. Many special needs children are being denied an education, simply because their needs are too complex and too expensive for the LEA to meet. So either they are left in unsuitable placements which cannot hope to meet their needs, or they are excluded and offered nothing. The LEAs and the government need to realise that some children's needs are going to be expensive and difficult to meet, but they cannot simply ignore them and hope they will go away!
Anna, Cambridgeshire

I am disabled. Until I was 11, I was at a 'Special' School. I then moved to mainstream. Although I coped well academically, I was bullied on a regular basis. Special schools appear to wrap children up in cotton wool at primary age which results in them not being able to 'hold their own' in mainstream secondary.
Claire, Cambridge

To Tracy: As a parent of a "child like this", I have been fighting for 8 years for his statement to be implemented in full. In many mainstream schools they follow your ignorant attitude. However, the available special schools are mostly non-specific, meaning they cater for a wide variety of conditions and ability levels and therefore no-one really gets specific help. If a child is deaf or had mobility problem, by your standards, instead of trying to accommodate them within mainstream where they are best placed to gain the best education, we should ship them off to special schools so they can sit in a class with kids who have mild to profound difficulties, and with an age range of anything between 2 and 3 years between them, doing work that is somewhere between colouring and very basic. Not exactly a good thing for their peer development. I don't agree with inclusion for inclusion's sake, but let's not take up this ignorant discriminating attitude, let's open up more specialist specific schools and units so these kids do have the opportunity to achieve qualifications and skills that will allow them a mainstream life as they hit adulthood.
Trish, Manchester

My son is 4 and has epilepsy. He will go to a special needs school. The local school had 30 kids starting this year and I do not think it would be fair on the teacher or my son [for him to go there]. I am happy with the special needs school. I do not think of my son as disabled or handicapped, only that he has a medical condition like most of the other children at the special school. My son needs more help than other children; I am sorry if some people don't like that. Of course we'd rather swap.
Alison, Scotland

I was sent to a mainstream school despite having special educational needs. I was miserable, I was bullied, and the school could do nothing for me but refer me to a centre who could do something, this meant me missing a lot of my lessons. But as usual money is all that matters to these people, never mind the needs of the child. Special schools are more expensive to run than normal ones. By the way, contrary to the opinion of Tracey, I do in fact work now. Not all of those with special educational needs are unable to do so.
Rachel, Southport

There are many parents who have already been forced to home educate their SEN children because of the lack of provision within the system. This has come about because of the insistence of keeping children with complex needs within a mainstream setting which the government likes to call "inclusion". If these changes go ahead as planned, I can only see even more parents being forced to home educate their SEN children to make sure that their needs are being met. Of course then questions may well be raised by LAs about the emotional well-being of the child taken out of the system. Who cares if the system is crippling the emotional well-being of the parents?
Carole Rutherford, Sunderland

I would point out to Tracey that a considerable proportion of what she describes as "children like this" can go on to contribute to society and plenty of "normal" children prove to be a massive social burden. Many parents would prefer to send their children with disabilities to non-mainstream schools, but suitable places are not available. If we, as a society, really believed that every child matters, we would make appropriate educational provision for every child and SENDIST would have very few cases to handle. If we feel it is too expensive to educate disabled children, then we should stop pretending, be honest and say so.
Sue, Shropshire

I teach in a mainstream school with a higher than average number of children with quite severe special educational needs. We are perceived to manage them well and on the face of it we do. However, we have neither the facilities or the real expertise to cater for these children properly. The powers that be (and some parents) need to realise that inclusion doesn't mean sitting a child in a mainstream classroom.
Dorritt, Nottingham

Parents are using expensive lawyers to manipulate what was meant to be a simple, fair system of hearing appeals. Local authorities do not have the time and money to counter this "industry" as costs are not awarded in the Tribunal. It will be advantageous to have the SEN & Disability Tribunal working in the same way as other tribunals, without the emotional atmosphere of the current set-up.
Keith, Bracknell

I agree totally with John. Currently, I am in the process of contesting in conjunction with my ex-wife an LEA decision for my daughter who has cerebral palsy. This is the most stressful process that we have ever been subjected to, as well as being extremely costly. To carry this burden as well as the difficulties of the disability adds insult to injury. For those lucky enough to avoid this misery, welcome to the world of "parental choice" in modern Britain. I cannot see how the changes will do anything other than make an already tough process even harder!
Mark, Kenilworth

Parents of children like this seem obsessed with the idea that their children go to "normal" schools. A child like this does need special care and special teaching and it is a financial drain on a school to provide this outside their usual requirements. We seem to place more emphasis on handicapped children who will never work and pay tax into the system, than so called normal children who will go to work and contribute to society.
Tracey

We took our local authority to SENDIST twice and they lost twice. SENDIST as it works offers parents the chance to present their evidence to an independent panel for independent arbitration. The Local Authority may have a completely different set of priorities including the cost. Some cases seem to show that a Local Authority may use SENDIST as a quality gateway. Either way the difference of opinion is usually between the Local Authority and parents not the parents and school. The proposed changes will deter all but the most wealthy and determined parents from going to SENDIST. In the long run this will shift the cost burden from children's services to adult services and disadvantage people who might otherwise lead an independent adult life. If you don't put what the child needs at that point in time at the centre of the case, the need will not go away. Lack of support for those majority of children with SEN in mainstream will also have an adverse effect on other children. The already huge likelihood of exclusion of children with autism in mainstream will increase. This does not seem to be anything other than a step backwards.
Martin Matthews, Lancashire

Our son Barnaby has Down Syndrome and we followed the advice of others and sent him to mainstream school. That lasted for one term and thankfully he is now at a school that caters for his needs. This was the best thing we could have done for our son. Specialist schools should be encouraged it is the best place for those with needs to learn.
Chris Scutts, Bognor Regis

The system of Local Education Authorities deciding where children with learning difficulties go is heavily stacked against the parent. The proposed changes will even further stack the odds against parents. As a parent who had to fight a local authority that hadn't even properly assessed my daughter, I am against these changes and think LEAs should be encouraged to develop specialist schools or develop partnerships with existing specialist schools rather than waste time and money opposing appeals.
John




SEE ALSO
Q&A: Special Educational Needs
08 Jan 07 |  Education

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