I think most people in the SEN world are aware of the recent events with Baker Small, the Solicitors who represent Local Authorities at Special Educational Needs Tribunals.
I’ve read all of the articles written by the press and each time I end up feeling that they have missed a very important element to this story. What it’s like for us, Parents of children with SEN. Although very real, It’s not just the anger at Mr Smalls comments that is relevant here, it’s the fact we, as parents, have to fight in the first place. It’s that the Tribunal process can take months, sometimes longer to complete from start to finish and this is not including the months, years even, of fighting we’ve had to go through before even getting to this stage. I want to thank Mr Small. Why? Well I’ll get to that later.
I have 3 children with SEN and over 10 years, I have gone through 5 Tribunals. 4 went to hearings and one was conceded by the Local Authority after months of preparation. I’ve been asked many times over the years to talk about what Trubunal is like for parents and have never felt it appropriate to give the full unedited details. I have never wanted to put any parent off appealing. It is there for us to use and we need to use it, because in many situations it’s the only way we can get our children’s needs met. Now I want to talk about it, not to put parents off, but whilst there is an interest out there I want people to know the root of our upset, that it goes much deeper than Mr Smalls’ comments. That the system we have no option but to use is stacked against children with SEN and Parents and about the very real injustice we feel.
The first point I want to make is that Parents aren’t fighting to get costly provision which they have decided by themselves is appropriate. It’s medical and educational professionals who have assessed our children and made recommendations for the provision they need in order to access education and learn, to gain and/or keep good mental health, to be given the chance to succeed and become a part of their community one day. Much of the provision initially suggested for my children wasn’t costly at all, but the effects of not providing this in a timely manner resulted in them failing and eventually needing much more.
The next point I want to make is that this isn’t a new problem. This system, in my experience, has always been adversarial. It’s not meant to be, it shouldn’t be, but it is and I’ve never experienced it any other way.
My first Tribunal was for DDA (Disability discrimination). My daughter had diagnoses of Asperger Syndrome, Dyspraxia, ADHD and Dyslexia. We weren’t asking for anything that cost money. I had bought all of the ‘fine motor skills’ equipment so my daughter could carry out the Occupational Therapy activities her therapist said she needed. She could hardly hold a pencil let alone write legibly. I had made visual timetables and produced all of the equipment to the school so it was ready to go. I asked for 5 minutes of TA time in the morning and after lunch so she could be monitored and they could check she was doing it properly. They refused. I asked they warn her before change to her routine. They didn’t. I asked they stop telling her off for fidgeting and other things relating to her disability especially in assemblies and in front of the whole school. They wouldn’t. I asked they sit her at the front of the class to stop her being distracted. They ‘Couldnt’. There were other similar requests, all recommended by medical and educational professionals, all refused by the school, and a Tribunal Judge agreed with us and that the effect of the school not carrying these out had a significant detrimental effect on our daughter and we won the Tribunal.
I would like to point out here that the school hired a QC. Not a run of the mill Local Authority representative, not a Solicitor, not even a Barrister. A QC paid for out of the children’s educational money to defend an indefensible case. I’d also like to point out that this wasn’t about suing or compensation of any kind. I’m not even sure if that’s a possibility in these cases but we certainly didn’t want that. It was about justice. About my daughter learning at 9 years old that adults do care, they do see her struggling and they do want to help.
Tribunals start a very long time before a hearing. There’s year after year of assessments, meetings, forms, paperwork, watching your child fail enough educationally and emotionally to finally have the evidence to ‘prove’ what you and the professionals have been saying all along. Then comes preparing for the appeal. Days, weeks even of sorting through paperwork & reports. Securing costly independent reports, depleting savings, loans, stress, desperation. Finally, when you’ve gathered all the evidence together and sent it into the Tribunal only to receive the LAs response. Now I can only comment about my children’s cases but reading them left me in pieces every time. Written by Solicitors, they are full of Legal quotes, law and every comment is aimed at dismissing your case. They have a tone of ‘neurotic, over anxious mother’ about them, the tone that I’ve had from the very start of my children’s SEN journey. I remember reading them (the last one arriving promptly on Christmas Eve) thinking I don’t stand a chance. How can I fight that? They know the law, I don’t, I’m just a parent.
That’s the thing about the Law. You can use the same ‘quote’ for various situations so it can be applied to dismiss one parent or applied to support another. I’m no genius but I do like to think I’m fairly intelligent and able to learn the basics of SEn Law so I can fight back. However then comes ‘the bundle, a huge pile of paperwork sent to everyone attending the Tribunal including the Judge and panel members. Every paragraph, every page is full of your child’s struggles. How your child has failed. Comments dismissing the (professionally recommended) support you know, without any doubt your child desperately needs. Dismissive statements combatting the very real effect of them not receiving the support. Everything they can’t do in black and white and with that comes emotion, memories, pain and natural instinct to protect your child. Add to that, this bundle is shared for all involved to see whilst knowing the other side is going to try in every way possible to use these words to fight you. They hold meetings in private discussing the evidence they will use against you, although as we see it, against our child.
Now imagine the hearing. A panel of 3 people, one of them a Judge. Now I have to say, the panels and Judges at every one of our Tribunals have been very supportive. They haven’t used Legal-speak with us or ‘grilled’ us like they have the other side. However the LAs Barrister, calmly, with no emotion (why should he? It’s not his child) fires Law at the Judge and they engage in lengthy discussion about whether it applies in this case. It’s not ‘a case’ though. It’s my child. I can’t engage in these discussions, I’ve no idea if what they are saying is right or wrong. The LAs witnesses, who in my other daughters case didn’t know her or had never met her. Even the Head Teacher of her (temporary) school admitted she was aware of her but didn’t know her. They paw over the bundle, that ‘pile of papers’ to them but our child’s life and struggles to us. They sift through, quoting things you said months ago in a meeting when you had been up all night dealing with your SEN child. That meeting when you’d had no sleep and a week full of assessments not to mention caring for your child 24/7. The professionals were fine at that meeting, they had slept as usual. Gone home the night before, leaving their stresses behind including that pesky up coming Tribunal. Parents can’t do that. They can’t leave the stress of the ‘battle’ behind, it’s there every day, every weekend. We deal with the effects of the wrong or no support and it’s draining, upsetting, painful.
Then comes the summing up. My emotional plea versus the LAs Legal team and their ‘Law quoting’ masterpiece. All I can do now is wait, wait for 2 weeks going over every comment made, coming up with a blinder of a response for that question posed by the LAs Barrister, or that hidden dismissive remark designed to make me look like I’m making it all up….. just far too late. All this, again, whilst caring for my struggling, failing child.
I think people know now that it’s pretty standard for SEN parents to fight. It is. But what I also want people to know it’s not an easy option. We wouldn’t go through all of this if our children were just a bit behind where we think they should be. This isn’t about a few comments made by a Solicitor on Twitter. I’m sure I speak for a lot of SEN parents when I say his attitude isn’t unique. Most of us have met LA Reps and Legal people with the same view point as Mr Small. Although I’m sort of grateful to him so here’s the ‘thank you’. He’s the only one I’ve known to be this honest, open and public about his views of SEN families. I’m thankful that he’s opened up the possibility for change to a system that is meant to be supporting and protecting vulnerable children and families, but in the process of defending our children’s rights, it’s tearing lives and families apart. It’s riding us of our savings and in some cases, our homes. It’s taking years out of our precious family life and replacing it with battles, emotional turmoil and throwing us into a legal world we did nothing to deserve and shouldn’t have to go through.
I think this is an opportunity to start real change. So thank you Mr Small.