I recently described the intimidating process which families have to endure when challenging their LEA's special educational needs provision for their child. Did you realise it comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice, and that tribunal hearings can take place in magistrates' courts?
This is the personal story of one mother who describes how fighting the system in order to provide what she feels her child needs has cost her her marriage and her career - twice!
It's natural that families whose children have special educational needs should seek the best provision at schools - yet they are often treated like second-class citizens by local authorities and tribunal appeal panels.
Sheridan Humphreys, the mother of a 12-year-old son, Max, who has hemiplegia, a form of cerebral palsy and epilepsy, has experienced three traumatic SEN tribunal appeals which cost her her marriage and twice her career as a PR Consultant in the entertainment industry.
Sheridan is sharing her devastating experiences to promote a SEN conference, Towards a Positive Future, for families and professionals, which is being held on Saturday, 16 June at the Mary Hare School, Newbury. Speakers include Jane Asher, President of the National Autistic Society.
Max is now settled in a specialist residential school in Surrey for boys with severe emotional and behavioural difficulties 50 miles away from her home in Godalming, Surrey.
"It's the right school for him and I am now concentrating on rebuilding my career, my emotional health and my family," says Sheridan, who is a parent representative on Family Voice in Surrey which ensures the voice of parents is heard with regards to the design and delivery of services for children with disabilities and SEN in the county and nationally as part of the National Network of Parent Carer Forums. She is also a parent representative on Surrey's Local Change Board, which governs the progress of the government's pathfinder trials which are taking place there, part of the government's reforms for SEN provision.
However, Sheridan admits she has paid a heavy price in seeking recognition of Max's condition, which she believes has been made much worse by the unhelpful approach of LEAs and the present intimidating tribunal appeal system.
"Not a week goes by without my being asked to prove to various statutory authorities that Max is a) disabled, or b) still has the 'incurable' conditions. By the time he was nine years old we had been through three SEN tribunal appeals," says Sheridan.
"The first appeal was when he was coming to the end of his nursery school. The nursery school led the process to apply for a Statement of SEN. This was declined, and so we appealed. And the day before it went to court, we were advised that our appeal was successful. I did this appeal myself, but it cost my marriage and my job.
"The second appeal was more dramatic and came towards the end of year one. On starting primary school, he was only allowed to attend for half a day for most of his reception class, and by the time he was six, he had been excluded frequently. He had even had his hands tied up by an LSA who could not cope with him - which led to a child protection investigation. I found another mainstream school that I liked, and it had a place, but the head teacher of my chosen school denied there was a place at the school and did not want my son.
"Fortunately, I won the other part of the tribunal - my son's hours of one-to-one support increased from 20 to 32 hours, specifically so he could not be excluded for events taking place in lunch breaks!
"I was most shocked at the tribunal when one of the panelists thanked a head teacher for coming, saying we realise your time is valuable etc. I had to take a day's holiday to be there, the panel are paid to be there, even my pro bono barrister wanted to be there... yet was I thanked? No. I was treated as the agitator.
"However, the exclusions continued until a new head teacher came along who did not believe in exclusions. I was relieved, but it turned out that my son was now spending most of his days sitting outside her office.
"I came to the decision that if he was going to continue to go to school, then he needed to attend a special school, and I found one, in Surrey. Surrey LEA eventually started to look for a school for my son - after the new school year had started. The special school that I chose let my son attend, and while waiting for the LEA to name a school, I was asked to contribute what I could afford towards its £10,000 a year costs.
"But, after three months, the school said they couldn't meet my son's needs without proper funding for his placement. Max was excluded after four months. Excluded from a special school! I thought my heart would break. I couldn't believe that I was again facing another SEN appeal! We didn't have to go to court. But it did cost me £1200 in legal fees. I suppose I was lucky. But once again, it cost me my job.
"Most of my friends are parents of children with special educational needs. Most of them have children who are home educated and/or excluded from school. And they tell me that the SEN tribunal system is still the same.
"This is what is the worst thing about it - no matter how much we could be learning from the system or from traumatic experiences like mine, nothing changes and nothing improves, and so much money is just wasted. Parents are treated like second-class citizens or trouble makers for wanting their child to have the best education to meet their special needs.
"In my experience, we only ended up in the appeals system due to the errors and incompetence of two LEAs (in particular, their breaching the SEN code of practice). Yet only once have I heard of an SEN tribunal chairman telling an LEA that they have behaved inappropriately. It's also hard, virtually impossible, for parents to work out where to go or who to sue to reclaim any costs. I would like to see professionals and LEAs held accountable by SEN tribunals, either through financial penalties...or some other measure. At the tribunals, there are no penalties for LEAs who break the law - so no incentives for them to change their pattern - and therefore parents are put through the same processes again and again.
"Also, parents are the least respected 'professional' in the room at an actual SEN tribunal. I certainly felt that head teachers and LEA officials were regarded with greater respect than I was, while I was regarded as the trouble-maker who had brought the appeal."
Janet O'Keefe, a speech and language therapist who is organising the conference and is an expert witness for families at tribunal appeal hearings, said Sheridan's experiences highlighted why urgent reforms were needed to make the appeal process more conciliatory and family friendly. While parents naturally seek the best education to meet their child's special needs, this can lead to conflict as present laws state it only has to provide "adequate" provision. The government reforms says that each child should "reach their potential", which I very much welcome.
"The present appeal system is very traumatic and expensive for families. 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."