I was shocked to discover the painful process that some families have to endure when appealing against their local education authority's special educational needs provision for their vulnerable child.
According to Janet O'Keefe, a speech and language therapist who attends many tribunals as an expert witness, 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.
"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."
This is one of the hot topics which be highlighted at a conference Janet is holding on 16 June called Towards a Positive Future, where speakers will include Jane Asher, president of the National Autistic Society.
Janet would like to see the government introduce a more conciliatory approach and negotiate with parents. She says the present system has resulted in the number of tribunals soaring, as well as 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."
Janet and her fellow speakers look forward to welcoming Jane Asher at the conference. Jane says:
"I am very much looking forward to coming to Wordswell's 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. "
One of the conference speakers, Tania Tirraoro, a mother of two autistic sons, Luca, 14, and Giorgio, 12, and author of Special Educational Needs - Getting Started with Statements, also 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 and will test out the government's main proposals in the SEN and disabilities Green Paper.
Janet's experiences clearly show that the present appeal process is very intimidating and needs to be made much more parent-friendly and in a less intimidating environment. Let's hope that the government will listen and provide a more conciliatory approach for families appealing against decisions made by their local authority.
Further details about the conference, which is being held in Newbury, Berkshire, can be viewed at this link. Our full press release can be read on Tania's Special Needs Jungle website.