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management Kids Tips & Tricks Blog/Vlog

When you have a child with special needs, you become an unwitting expert in all kinds of things you never thought you would need to know. In addition to all the usual, pick-it-up-as-you-go-along aspects of parenting such as potty-training or helping your child to walk or talk, you also have to do a crash course in your son or daughter’s particular challenges. These could be anything from:

  1. Sensory needs including SPD
  2. Autism
  3. Emotional challenges
  4. Problems with reading, writing or maths
  5. Difficulties with hearing or mobility

It could be a combination of many things.

Whatever obstacles your child faces, you also have to learn how to get them the best possible support at home and school – which isn’t always as easy as it sounds. As many families have discovered, the world of special needs is full of paperwork, procedures and legal jargon which can be confusing to anyone, let alone mums and dads who are desperately worried about their child’s welfare and wellbeing.

Seeking a Better Outcome

mother speaking to child about school

One of the most stressful aspects of supporting a youngster with SEN is the tribunal process. Where a family is unhappy with the assistance – or lack of – that their child has been offered in terms of educational or therapeutic help, they can challenge their local authority at a ‘tribunal’ or court hearing. The local authority then has the chance to defend their decisions and, after listening to both sides of the argument, a judge gives a ruling.

The aim of this hearing might be, for example, to secure specific help for a child such as occupational therapy or one-to-one support in the classroom. It may also be to increase the amount of support the child receives. If the youngster has been offered a place at a certain school but the family feels a different placement is more suitable, this, too, would be brought to a tribunal. In addition, sometimes parents go to a tribunal to obtain or amend an Education and Health Care Plan (EHCP).

As with all legal proceedings, preparing for a hearing can be extremely hard work says Sue Peacock, a mum of five children with special needs, who lives on the Wirral. Incredibly, she has had to attend tribunals more than once for each one of her offspring, finding out all she could about the relevant laws and procedures as she went along.

Tribunals Are Stressful!

stressed mother with paperwork

Fighting for the right support has been a long and arduous journey, she says, which started when her eldest son tried to commit suicide at the age of eight. “He’d always been quite advanced – he was walking and talking early – but something happened once he got into Year 3,” she comments. “Because he’d moved up to the junior school, there was more pressure on him, I think, and he couldn’t cope. He became violent and self-destructive – though he never hurt other people – and we were constantly on suicide watch with him which is the worst feeling for any parent.”

Despite the fact that the boy grew more and more distressed, eventually becoming hysterical whenever he had to go to school, the family’s local authority wouldn’t allow him a statement of special needs (the forerunner to today’s EHC plans). Sue challenged this at a tribunal but despite this, it was still difficult to get health professionals to agree on what was making him so unhappy. Over the next few years, her son was shunted between home, hospital and different schools – with the family going back to court to push for better support – until finally, he received a diagnosis of autism with demand-avoidant behaviour (PDA) and was able to receive appropriate help.

However, in the meantime, each of Sue’s four younger children began one by one, to exhibit challenging behaviour. By this time, she had acquired a great deal of knowledge about special needs and the appeals process but even so, she still had to go through it all over again, getting diagnoses, going to court to challenge placements and securing support via EHCPs. All her children have now been diagnosed with autism with PDA traits and mental health issues.

HOW CAN I WIN THE TRIBUNAL?

Two important steps:

1. Prepare Thoroughly

Having prepared for endless tribunals, Sue – who has a degree in psychology and sociology and used to work at the Home Office – began to advise other families on going to court. At first, this was on a voluntary basis but four years ago, she set herself up as a professional advocate. “I love what I do. Having gone through it so many times myself, I’ve had the best apprenticeship,” she says. “I had to watch my children fall apart mentally because no one would help them. I don’t want other people to go through that.”

Peacock advises parents to prepare as thoroughly as they can before the hearing. “Gather as much evidence as you can and get everything in writing,” she urges. “The panel has to read everything you submit. There’s a format you have to follow when you prepare the documents, referencing certain paragraphs and page numbers, for example. It makes it much easier to refer to the relevant information during the hearing and it also shows the court that you are well-prepared.”

She also recommends that families hire an independent professional if possible – such as an occupational therapist, educational psychologist or speech and language therapist – to assess their child and produce a report for the court. However, she stresses that there are certain, crucial, factors to consider when it comes to getting this help.

You can also contact Joanna at SENsational Tutors who can write a proposal for specialist SEN tutoring or holistic EOTAS packages which you can submit to the LA and panel.

2. Hire the Right Expert

The first, she says, is making sure that the expert you choose is familiar with tribunal standards and what is required of them. That person should also be willing to attend the hearing if necessary. Parents also need to bear in mind that professionals can only comment on their own area of expertise – an occupational therapist, for example, can make recommendations about the physical environment whereas if you are challenging a school placement, an educational psychologist would be the best expert to comment on this.

However, the most crucial aspect of these reports, Peacock points out, is that they are written in a very precise, court-worthy way. “Everything must be specified and quantified. It’s no good saying things like a child would benefit from an ‘opportunity’ – that’s too vague. I could say I would benefit from an ‘opportunity’ to go on holiday but that doesn’t say where I should go or what kind of holiday it needs to be.”

“There’s also no point saying a child needs ‘access’ to something,” she continues. “The report needs to say something very clear like, ‘Billy will require the use of a laptop for five hours a day, three days a week with the support of a fully-qualified speech and language therapist.’’”

These services don’t come cheap. “You can pay around £2,000 for a report. You might also have to pay for the person to attend the hearing or stay overnight if they’re not local,” Peacock warns. “We must have spent about £80,000 on assessments over the years! If you can afford it, get as many assessments as you can but if you can’t, get anyone who has ever observed your child’s difficulties to write a statement – the GP, a teaching assistant or a Brownie leader, for example. And I would advise everyone to involve their child’s school and get a report from a member of staff.”

FINALLY…

The Good News – Tribunals Are Usually Successful

As a former teacher and educational consultant who has worked with twelve local authorities across the UK, Sunil Chothi has inside knowledge of the ‘hows’ and ‘whys’ of the EHCP process and how to navigate tribunals.

Now a London-based SEN advocate, he, too, emphasises the need for clearly-worded evidence from expert witnesses and says that when it comes to getting support for your child, it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the grease. “It’s always worth going to a tribunal if you have to,” he advises. “Parents who challenge local authorities usually get better support and we’re seeing more and more people taking that route. But it doesn’t always have to go to court. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate with the local authority and cases can be resolved before they get that far – though mediation often has limited success.”

When it comes to contesting a school placement, Chothi advises that families should also be prepared to prove exactly why the rejected school isn’t suitable as well as why the preferred school is a better match.

“Tribunals are such a specialised area and parents often need to get help preparing for them,” he cautions. “It can be very stressful. Hiring an expert such as an advocate or a solicitor is a short-term investment for a long-term gain.” The good news, he adds, is that the majority of appeals are successful.

Peacock’s eldest son is now studying electrical engineering at college and doing very well while her other children are all settled at special schools. “They’re an advertisement for what kids with special needs can achieve, given the right support,” she concludes.

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