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Government Urged To Ensure SEN Appeal System Is Made Less Intimidating
Many families experience an intimidating process when they appeal against local authority decisions regarding special educational needs provision for vulnerable children, says speech and language therapist Janet O’Keefe, who attends many tribunals as an expert witness.
Janet says “Special educational needs and disability tribunals are organised by the Ministry of Justice as part of the court system and their hearings are often heard in magistrates’ courts, asylum and immigration buildings, or social security offices which is very stressful for parents who have not done anything wrong other than disagree with the provision proposed to support their child by the local authority responsible for meeting their special educational needs.”
This issue was one of the topics under discussion at the SEN Conferences which Janet hosts across the UK, where highly acclaimed specialists and SEN professionals present the latest findings in their respective fields with past speakers including the likes of Jane Asher, president of the National Autistic Society.
Janet, a respected Expert Speech and Language Therapist, highlights that the events are aimed at parents of children with special education needs and the professionals who support them.
Janet says: “It’s disappointing that local authorities do not seem to be currently negotiating with parents, which results in more appeal hearings and higher legal costs for those parents who use expensive specialist solicitors and barristers to represent them. On average I have attended two tribunal hearings a month as an expert witness for speech and language therapy; in January 2012, there were 12 in the diary and I attended eight.
Since all tribunals came under the Ministry of Justice, hearings have had to be held in government buildings instead of hotels or dedicated tribunal buildings to save money. This means that instead of a formal business meeting, special education appeal hearings are now held in magistrates’ courts, asylum and immigration buildings, or social security offices. Often there is security on the door like an airport to scan and search all bags and people entering the building. The whole process is increasingly stressful – and all because parents dared to disagree with the provision the local authorities are offering to support their child who through no fault of their own has special educational needs.
The legal costs have also escalated for parents who seek legal representation. Just five years ago parents were telling me that their legal bill was on average £7,000, now they are telling me it is more than £20,000.”
Tania Tirraoro, a mother of two autistic sons, and author of Special Educational Needs – Getting Started with Statements, believes a much more conciliatory approach is required which would involve a huge culture shift away from the present process so the focus is on the special educational needs of the child, and not the local authority’s budget.
Tania belongs to Family Voice Surrey, a parent carer group to help form the new SEN structure where pathfinder trials are taking place.
She says: “The system has been adversarial for far too long, and it’s not just the framework that needs to change to improve things, but the attitudes of some LEA staff to dealing with stressed and vulnerable parents. Even as the trials are getting underway, parents using the existing system are still being subjected to unnecessary expense preparing for tribunals that the LEA backs out of at the last minute, inadequate proposed statements and fights over placements. A change here would make the biggest difference of all.”
There are many fine ideals in the green paper, but the most important thing is that the pathfinder trials must show that they are workable on a large scale and do, in fact, improve the lives of children with SEN and their families.
Jane Asher, president of the National Autistic Society, says:
“I am very much looking forward to the SEN conference – anything that can help to promote understanding, support and the need for the right education for those on the autistic spectrum is always close to my heart.
“After over 30 years of working with the National Autistic Society I still continue to learn more about this complex condition all the time, and I know I will enjoy meeting the parents, carers, professionals and those with autism themselves who will gather to exchange experiences and to help improve the lives of all those affected.“
Janet’s upcoming book ‘The Ordinariness of Impairment: inspiring stories about children with special needs’ is co-authored with Raymond Aaron, New York Times Best-Selling Author which includes practical information and support for parents and expert witnesses.