I’m extremely interested in Special Educational Needs, even though this is not a particular research area of mine. As you will have seen from my biography, I am a former teacher and now a university education lecturer with the requisite PhD in education. I also happen to have two children with learning difficulties. A few years ago, at the suggestion of my children’s schools, and with the full support of their Special Needs Co-ordinators and some of the LEA’s own specialist members of staff, I made a formal application to the LEA for my children to be assessed so that they could receive a statement of special educational needs. This was so their schools could receive additional funding on their behalf. The LEA flatly refused to assess my children, citing a reason that did not hold up in law. I arranged for the children to have various private assessments with reputable specialists, to give an independent opinion as to what they were likely to need in educational terms, and whether it was advisable that I should proceed with an appeal. At home I scrutinised every piece of paperwork I was sent and I soon became aware that many of the LEA’s policies were riddled with errors and occasional but fundamental misunderstandings about the nature of child development, and also did not stand up in terms of current education and disability law.
With the help of a couple of leaflets and the standard SENDIST video, I started to prepare my own case ready for the Tribunal, but found this gruelling, on top of a full day’s work and caring for the children in the evenings. I estimate that I spent approximately 50-60 hours per child preparing each case. (Bear in mind that I am an academic and therefore well used to carrying out documentary analysis of complicated texts). However it was too much even for me. Just as I was about to crumble and give up, a leading charity stepped in and provided me with a trainee barrister to carry on the work on a pro bono basis. She did a wonderful job, and her inside knowledge of the system meant she was able to anticipate problems such as the LEA failing to submit the necessary paperwork to the Tribunal, which would have meant that the Tribunal would not have been able to take all the facts of the case into account, which might have adversely affected our chances of winning. There is no way I could have known or anticipated that things like this would happen.
In the end, the LEA conceded the day before the Tribunal, and my children did receive a statement, but it cost a great deal of money, time and stress (in some ways I am still recovering from this chain of events). However it is now announced today in the latest Government Green Paper Support and Aspiration: A New Approach to Special Educational Needs and Disability that this system is about to be replaced with a new process that is designed to be more family-friendly. So what are we getting?
Well, it’s primarily a consultation document laying out a process that sounds familiar in some ways. Children will still be assessed, resources for them will still be limited, professional classroom expertise will probably still remain patchy and linked to teacher enthusiasm, mediation will be still held up as some kind of panacea, and parents will probably still live on their nerves. The changes seem to lie in how the money is moved around. Parents may or may not hold the funds for their children’s educational, health and social care (although they can only spend it on a limited range of approved options, so forget that great independent little school up the road unless you are under five). Legal aid for first stage appeals will be withdrawn and replaced with compulsory mediation. Parents will have school choice, but not necessarily any transport. Within all this I just can’t see how parents (or children and young people, for that matter) are really going to be empowered other than being given the usual superficial advice, sheets of A4 paper with physiotherapy or speech therapy exercises for home, and glossy NHS leaflets with more photos of happy, ethnically diverse children in colourful urban settings than useful information. I am not saying that all professionals and organisations parents encounter fob you off – far from it, and over the years we’ve experienced our share of top quality support. But I am just not convinced yet that the new regime put forward by Michael Gove, Sarah Teather et al will go far enough to make sure these parents and children are reliably supported in all parts of the UK during difficult times of social reform and financial challenge.
Let’s discuss this. Please comment below, so we can see a spread of opinion. Remember this is also an official consultation period, and you have until 30 June to send your comments to the Government. The web address for their consultation is: http://tinyurl.com/5sjjosp
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