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Yvonne Murray will continue to report on Special Educational Needs tonight

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Eddie Mair | 13:27 UK time, Friday, 13 July 2007

in direct response to the strength of feeling expressed by listeners on the Blog. She writes:

"The last time the schools minister, Lord Adonis, appeared on the programme he said that the SEN Tribunal was free for parents.

By saying that, he said, he was simply relaying the views of the Tribunal itself. He suggested that we invite the Tribunal onto the programme to be able to explain itself more clearly. So we did. Lady Hughes, President of the SEN Tribunal (SENDIST) agreed to speak exclusively to PM.

In the interview we will air tonight she tells me that it does concern her that parents are spending a lot of money on independent assessments of their children and suggests that's an area which could be improved.

But she disagrees with suggestions that the Tribunal itself is a hostile arena and says parents do not need to pay for legal representation because the Tribunal is designed to help unrepresented parents get the necessary support for their children."

Hear the piece in full on the programme.


  1. At 01:35 PM on 13 Jul 2007, witchiwoman wrote:

    Although this doesn't effect me personally am truly pleased to see this issue carried further and look forward to hearing the piece.

    Well done Yvonne and Team for listening and responding!

  2. At 01:51 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Simon Worrall wrote:

    Regrettably the LEA's DO spend vital money on Barristers to try and escape their legal obligations, or at least defer them until a child is older, in an effort to save money.

    So desperate parents feel the need to meet fire with fire to get the decision which, rightly or wrongly, they feel their child is entitled to by law.

    One can't help feeling that the LEA's need to be reined in, to break this cycle of claims ending up in court. If they were more moderate in their behaviour and less confrontational, if they were more willing to comply with their legal obligations, then perhaps so many clearly desperate parents wouldn't feel the need to spend small fortunes trying to push their cases.

    Looking forward to it.


  3. At 03:10 PM on 13 Jul 2007, tony ferney wrote:

    Just taken cognizance of the PM letter.

    We are NOT amused.

  4. At 03:48 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Member of the public... wrote:

    To: Eddie at PM

    In an ideal world it would all work out beautifully. Children of all abilities learning together in the same classroom, those with more demanding needs - the disabled, those with behavioural problems - ably and devotedly attended to by well-funded specialist helpers enabling the other children to work uninterrupted and undisturbed.
    But let's not kid ourselves. This world is far from perfect. And this country's special education system I think is nothing less than a farce.

    Some of the country's most vulnerable young people are being forced into mainstream schools where a lack of funds means they simply aren't getting the help and support they need. They are suffering and their more able classmates are suffering.

    And while the situation spirals into ever-deepening crisis special schools across the land are being forced to close and parents of special needs children face an exhausting battle just to get the most basic education.

    Pressure is stronger than ever on the Government to dramatically reform this failing special education system - after Baroness Warnock, the woman behind the policy, appeared to admit it wasn't working back in 2005.

    At that time and speaking 20 years after she produced a report which began the drive towards greater inclusion, Lady Warnock said it caused "confusion of which children are the casualties", adding that the system for assessing the most severe needs "must be abolished".

    An independent inquiry should conduct a "radical review" of special needs education, she said. Not before time. The current system is failing thousands of children and makes a mockery of of Labour's promises to give parents greater choice. The system is still failing.

    This 'one-size-fits-all' system fits no-one. Parental choice is rapidly becoming non-existent and, as it approaches extinction, many of the most vulnerable children are subject to an inflexible curriculum which is neither appropriate nor fair.

    If special schools are to be closed and children with special needs incorporated into mainstream schools, they must be properly provided for. Until that guarantee can be given ministers must halt the continued closure of dedicated special schools.

    The phrase special needs covers such a wide variety of conditions - from severe mental and physical handicaps to delinquency - that the idea of any overall policy which will meet all these needs adequately is a nonsense.

  5. At 05:34 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Michell Chambers wrote:

    Rosemary Hughes referred to all 200 pages of the blog as the "grumbling minority"! She will never improve her Tribunal until she accepts the truth.

    I have attended 13 Tribunals for my 2 children mainly because the LEA have been able to get away with adjourning last minute. The Tribunal's annual review reflects an increase in adjournments. Adjournments mean more costs for parents and the LEA get away with a few more months of not having to pay for appropriate provision. Parent's have to do so much to match all the LEA employees who are constant players and their Barristers.
    A parent cannot on their own match up to that especially when panel members allow the LEA's to get away with all sorts.

    At my number 13 Tribunal I was horrified to see a panel member assisting the LEA and later fell asleep whilst evidence was being given. Very scary!

  6. At 05:35 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Michelle Chambers wrote:

    Rosemary Hughes referred to all 200 pages of the blog as the "grumbling minority"! She will never improve her Tribunal until she accepts the truth.

    I have attended 13 Tribunals for my 2 children mainly because the LEA have been able to get away with adjourning last minute. The Tribunal's annual review reflects an increase in adjournments. Adjournments mean more costs for parents and the LEA get away with a few more months of not having to pay for appropriate provision. Parent's have to do so much to match all the LEA employees who are constant players and their Barristers.
    A parent cannot on their own match up to that especially when panel members allow the LEA's to get away with all sorts.

    At my number 13 Tribunal I was horrified to see a panel member assisting the LEA and later fell asleep whilst evidence was being given. Very scary!

  7. At 05:58 PM on 13 Jul 2007, James Parker wrote:

    Lady Hughes must resign - it is obvious she has not got a clue of what is really happening with Leas and tribunals. It is adversarial and to suggest otherwise is a farce – Leas only want to spend money on special need children unless they are put under great pressure. You therefore in nearly every case need professional advice if you want to succeed. It does not cost £100s but £1000s, and if you loose you walk away with nothing. You need to be very well organized and have good financial resources to take them on. To say the process is not stressful is unbelievable – it is your child’s future at stake!
    PM please pursue this further – Lady Hughes statistics are in some way badly floored – many parents just give up because the whole process is far too daunting.

  8. At 06:07 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Ann Bauer wrote:

    I look forward to the comments tonight. I did manage to represent our child at all 5 of our tribunals but I did need and use my SpLD training and knowledge and the back up of independent experts and their reports, otherwise there are only the reports of the providers to go on. Working on the politest 'spin' most people would agree that second opinions are necessary, especially when the providers are doing the assessing.
    The Tribunal panel was helpful to me but from other stories I have heard I believe we were lucky with the panels we were allotted. However I am grateful to them for fair hearings.
    Despite representing ourselves it was the LEA that rolled out a barrister against us, two days before the third hearing, in what I can only call bullying tactics.
    'Free' is a very loose term when losing years at work and a career, illness from depression, exhaustion, caring for a child who is far from happy and trying to keep the rest of the family going. I was pathetically grateful that my travelling costs were paid but 'free' is a relative term.
    Ann Bauer

  9. At 06:54 PM on 13 Jul 2007, madmary wrote:

    And of course the barrister that the LEA wheels out at a tribunal will cost the taxpayer a considerable amount of money.

    I have no personal present interest in this story but I have to say as a lawyer (not education thankfully) I don't believe that if the LEA is represented by counsel that the tribunal can be a level playing field for unrepresented people.

    Why do they appoint counsel to represent them? LEAs employ their own solicitors. A barrister will be additional cost to the tax payer.

    Even if the LEA provide in-house representation that person will be legally qualified and thus better able to argue legal points. It's not good enough to say that the tribual can explain the law to the parents. I explain law on a daily basis to ordinary members of the public who are in stressful situations, and they don't get it. It's hard. That's why I had to go to college and get qualified.

    This woman made my blood boil.

    I suppose I do have a semi-professional interest as I have come across many young people who have not been provided with special education because they have not been identified has having special needs. I can't spot a mile off children and young people who have ADHD or some disorder on the autism spectrum. These children have not been so identified by those who are in fact professionally qualified to determine such things. No wonder parents of such children are frustrated angry and find the whole process intimidating.


  10. At 07:14 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Ed Iglehart wrote:

    Good words, Mary!

  11. At 07:59 PM on 13 Jul 2007, madmary wrote:

    Oops spotted a typo! I meant to say that I CAN spot people with special ed needs.

    Mary (x to Ed)

  12. At 08:05 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Michael & Julie Harrold wrote:

    As parents who had to deal with our son’s schools and LEA over a period of years to obtain any semblance of natural justice for him, fighting his case successfully at two SenDisT hearings without professional representation, we cannot agree with those who claim that it is impossible to conduct one’s case without such (costly) assistance. The young lady chairwoman of one panel at SenDisT expressed most rudely her astonishment at our intention to conduct the disability discrimination case against the school ourselves and in our own manner (not relying entirely on written notes to avoid a stilted delivery which could prejudice the outcome), but – informed by two parents well-placed to present the case and with the Chairwoman soon moderated by older (and perhaps more able and perspicaceous) colleagues – the tribunal still found in our son’s favour on all counts.

    The second case – an appeal against the LEA’s statement content – was also chaired by a lady lawyer, more mature and measured in manner than her colleague at the first hearing. We were received and heard with courtesy and perceptiveness throughout, the Chairwoman needing little advice from her colleagues to help determine the outcome (which left the LEA and its Senior Solicitor in no doubt about how dimly the tribunal viewed their total neglect of our son’s particular educational needs over a period of years). The LEA not only produced an acceptable Statement soon afterwards, but also under-wrote the provision of one-to-one home tutoring with tutors of our choosing, enabling him to sit International GCSE examinations this year after only eight months of formal education since the age of twelve years.

    One must never belittle those who feel unable to advance their child's case without professional representation (given that the complexity of some children’s needs demand such specialist expertise). Equally, one must never under-estimate the cost of do-it-yourself tribunal advocacy in terms of the enormous preparatory effort involved, the emotional impact of going through sometimes acrimonious correspondence with the LEA and the psychological effect of having to face both a SenDisT panel and officials from an LEA which holds opinions and pursues policies at odds with one’s own views and needs. Nonetheless, we found the tribunals at SenDist to be perceptive and painstakingly helpful. The atmosphere at the hearings was no more formal than was appropriate for the circumstances (our son remaining present throughout and being allowed plentiful opportunity to present his own views and responses).

    SenDisT may be an imperfect vehicle for delivery of the perceived and/or actual needs in certain individual cases, but there can be found within that service many people who are genuinely anxious to meet properly the needs of disabled children whose cases are brought to them for adjudication. Lady Rosemary Hughes’ reference to a "grumbling minority" is unfortunate and she may not understand fully just how implacable a foe one’s LEA can be, but her departure from SenDisT (called for by James Parker at 05:58 PM on 13 Jul 2007) would achieve little. Surely, the imposition of new hands at the SenDisT helm will only prove detrimental to the organisation’s standing in the eyes of the public and will hinder progress towards the goal of justice for all special needs children?

  13. At 08:40 PM on 13 Jul 2007, madmary wrote:

    Michael and Julie, you are both people who are clearly articulate and capable.

    As a lawyer I know only too well how much easier it is for people with such skills to fit into the system.

    I can think of many people I know who have tried to fight the education and other systems who are not blessed with the ability to deal with apparently educated and able opposition.

    Maybe the answer is to have a system of advocates who are not necessarily lawyers.

    I was myself represented by a very capable advocate at an employment tribunal. He was not legally qualified but knew his subject well and he won for me up against London counsel.

    I would never represent myself at any tribunal even though I am more than capable. I don't think I have the objectivity to present a point in my favour as well as a representative. There is a saying which says that if a solicitor acts for themselves they have a fool for a lawyer.

    I'm not saying self-representation cannot be done, but it is so much easier to have a third person to take the worry, stress, research away and to have the clarity to present a good case.

    Of course this government has cut the legal aid budget to the bone and there is no hope that people could get help with funding where it is needed.


  14. At 09:54 PM on 13 Jul 2007, Jill Davies wrote:

    I believe the tribunal process is largely fair, but Lady Rosemary Hughes needs to be aware that behind the "grumbling minority" are a silent but increasing majority whose children are being let down by their local authorities, and who will never get as far as a SENDIST hearing - because of local funding policies which actively seek to reduce the number of statements by delegating funds directly to schhols, thereby depriving parents of their right of appeal if they are unhappy with the provision their child is getting. The statementing system still exists and the law has not changed, but some local authorities are actively misleading parents into believing the opposite.

  15. At 09:33 AM on 14 Jul 2007, Chris Gravell wrote:

    Madmary suggests:

    “Maybe the answer is to have a system of advocates who are not necessarily lawyers.”

    IPSEA is a charity that does just that. In 05-06, it helped nearly 900 families with the preparation of their appeals. Of these families, 38% received help on the day of the Tribunal hearing from one of IPSEA’s Tribunal Representatives. Of those, 70% had incomes of below £15k.


    The service is always overstretched, but is there.

    Obtaining expert reports, however, is costly and a real issue, even for poor parents who might previously have had help and reports through the legal aid system – recent restrictions on funding mean that many education lawyers have given up helping such parents. Lady Hughes’s suggestion that expert witnesses be provided by the Tribunal is one that should be pursued.


  16. At 11:13 AM on 14 Jul 2007, Jackie Cheeseman wrote:

    Thanks for carrying on with this issue. We went to the SENT in 2001 and I can only hope matters have improved since then. While we won all that we wanted the whole process was extremely stressful. It is still a legal procedure with legal words, phraseology etc. Goodness knows what we would have done if the LEA had got a barrister, we believed naively that the strength of our case was sufficient and we turned up with our bundles of reports etc yet were too nervous in the end to do them justice. We had two witnesses, a senior teacher and a Paediatrician. It was overwhelmingly obvious that the Panel respected their contributions more than us, as lowly, nervous parents. Personally, I felt very inadequate and intimidated and it haunts me that I might so easily have let my son down. Does it need to be like this? A footnote to this, is less than a year later the LEA was deemed guilty of Maladministration in our son's case. No adversarial appearances were necessary, just the evidence!

  17. At 11:59 AM on 14 Jul 2007, Brendan King wrote:

    I support Chris Gravell's comments, I've been a IPSEA tribunal representative since 1994, and appeared at early hearings when Rosemary Hughes was a Panel Chairperson. She and most of her colleagues are fair and very helpful to parents who are unrepresented. But if parents arrive ill-prepared and not having sent in relevant written evidence to back up their appeal, there is little the panel can do, other than adjourn or dismiss the appeal. It is before the hearing that is the problem. An experienced IPSEA adviser/rep. can help parents prepare a legally sound case statement that makes all the relevant points to support a successful appeal. When parents have a well prepared case, they can manage very well at the hearing -- even if the LEA are legally represented. In fact, most LEA's do not use lawers or barristers unless parents do so, and often arrive less well prepared than the parents -- particularly when parents have had assistance from experienced advisers/reps.

    Witnesses are also important, and as all of those who might be witnesses supporting the parent, are employed by the LEA or Health Authority, and who can be 'lent upon' it is difficult for a parent to find independent expert witnesses -- without employing their own expert witnessess, who assess, make reports and attend as witnesses for the parent. These cost huge amounts -- and are then accused by the LEA at the Hearing of being biased (having been paid by the parent) and not having seen the child as much as the class teacher, etc. So truely independent assessors who could attend as nuetral witnesses -- angaged by the Tribunal whenever a lack of unbiased evidence was an issue, plus thightening the rules on allowing school staff to attend and tell the truth with no come back by their employers -- would be a great step forward.

    Tribunals will always be stressful for parents who get very angry when LEA's mislead and misrepresent to rob their child of its entitlements. So an early system of checking the papers by the Tribunal -- to penalise and prevent LEA's from defending cases where they have broken the law in such a way that has caused the appeal to arise -- would also cut down on LEA misbehaviour and reduce the need for most of the current type of appeals. Brendan King

  18. At 12:10 PM on 14 Jul 2007, seamus mcneill wrote:

    This was a self selecting survey and it was not unexpected that the great majority of reponders would be unhappy. What can explain the huge growth in the number of children who require "statements"? Could it be that some parents may be seeking additional assistance for children who may not be at the top of the class?

  19. At 01:23 PM on 14 Jul 2007, Julie Maynard wrote:

    Well done Brendan King - I totally agree with reviewing evidence prior to the hearing, to challenge LEAs conduct nad failure in statutory duties.

    Sorry Seamus, your comments are misguided. According to official Government statistics issued in the last quarter, the number of children with statements of special educaitonal needs is in fact at an all time low, so your statement is in fact based on a false premise. Moreover, if you had a disabled child struggling to get appropriate support, I think you may well have a very different perspective of events.

  20. At 01:26 PM on 14 Jul 2007, Brendan King wrote:

    Seamus asks why the requirement for statements is rising.

    Actually numbers of newly issued statements are falling dramatically, although there is an increased demand by parents and schools for statements to be issued.

    LEAs are refusing to assess at a greater rate -- telling parents misleadingly that government has told them to issue less statements (or none at all) but to simply send more funds directly to the schools.

    So the number of appeals against refusal to assess is rising as parents can clearly see that their child (flounderng in an under-resourced mainstream school) is not getting the support and specialist tuition/therapies it requires or would have received in a special school.

    Inclusion of greater numbers of SEN children into mainstream schools, without adding in sufficient funding for individual support and expertise / training, etc., is the reason there is a greater requirement for statemenitng, as this is the only way parents can be sure their SEN child will be sufficiently supported and have any hope of making progress in line with reasonable expectation.

    Mainstream schools will always be overly tempted to divert additional SEN funding towards supporting pupils who will improve the school's performance tables (notably not the SEN children the funds were devolved for) unless that funding is protected by a specific and quantified statement.

    The problem is insufficient funding for special educational needs and LEAs avoiding their statutory duties in assessing and statementing children whenever the child fails to make expected progress, despite the school claiming to have done its best over a significant period of time.

  21. At 01:39 PM on 14 Jul 2007, Chris Gravell wrote:

    Seamus McNeil writes:

    “What can explain the huge growth in the number of children who require ‘statements’?”

    But there hasn’t been a huge growth – in fact since 1997 there has been a huge fall in the number of new statements issued, from 36,200 p.a. in 1998 to 22,600 in 2006 – a fall of nearly 40% – so this ‘‘growth ’is not just a myth, but a gross misrepresentation of real life.

    Even in the mid to late 1990s, the ‘rise’ was contested, as was the idea that the figures were not justified by the needs of the children for whose sake the system was set up. Recent figures on numbers of disabled children, for instance, show that the Govt has been severely underestimating them for years (Office of the Prime Minister’s 2005 report, Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People, www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/strategy/work_areas/disability/index.asp

    Moreover, reductions in statutory assessments (to decide whether statements should be issued) and statements are only supposed (by Govt policy) to take place when it is clear that the children who were formerly statemented will be supported appropriately within the resources of ordinary schools. Those who support parents commonly see clear instances where this is not the case. Appeals against refusals to assess made up 40% of the Tribunal’s annual load in 05-06, and two thirds of those resulted in a decision to assess.


  22. At 02:11 PM on 14 Jul 2007, Chris Gravell wrote:

    I wrote:

    Appeals against refusals to assess made up 40% of the Tribunal’s annual load in 05-06, and two thirds of those resulted in a decision to assess.

    I should add that refusal to assess appeals form the largest single category and it's growing.

    The two thirds is of decisions issued, i.e. a hearing took place – when you add in the numbers conceded by the LEA before the hearing, the success rate of parents is 70% of appeals registered, and the figure for withdrawals (additional 22%) may conceal a lot of concessions by LEAs.

    Advocates believe that these figures are tip of the iceberg indicators – parents are reluctant or unable to take on their LEAs. Easy access to support and advocacy, such as that provided by IPSEA, would help a lot.


  23. At 01:52 PM on 15 Jul 2007, Yvonne Murray, PM Reporter wrote:

    Thank you all again for your comments on this subject. We will be recording them all again for our next follow-up.

    It's important to point out that in the interview I conducted with Lady Hughes on Friday, the phrase "grumbling minority" was in my question to her - not in her answer.

    We will post the interview on the blog this week if anybody would like to listen.

  24. At 07:20 PM on 15 Jul 2007, A disheartened mum wrote:

    We had no choice but to have a Barrister to represent us, due to many many months of trying unsucessfully to resolve the issue of my child not being educated at all. This was just as well since the LEA showed up on the day with their own Barrister, having not even sent in their attendance form, so we had no idea who was attending on their behalf! It was only through our Barristers negotiations, prior to meeting the tribunal panel on the day, that the majority of issues were resolved and thankfully our child is now receiving an education. Lets not also forget the fact that the assessments carried out on children commissioned by the LEA's are done by people aware of their restricted budgets and therefore the assessments are short and often advise for only limited help as the budgets dictate. The tribunal is a very stressful time for parents who have often waited many many months to be heard and if parents have a choice then surely they would rather make sure that they have left no stone unturned and use a Barrister who is aware of when the LEA representative is telling untruths! Sadly for us at the first chance possible (only a few months after the tribunal) our LEA are challenging the tribunals decision. As far as I am concerned it is all very well going to tribunal and winning, but unless there are penalities for the LEA's to pay for messing parents/children around then they will continue to force parents to spend thousands of pounds to go though the tribunal process. A tribunal panel can only decide based on the information it receives and if a parent doesn't get private reports or is nervous at the tribunal then the information presented to the panel will be viewed poorly. LEA officers want to preserve budgets and are well versed at trbunals, so in my opinion they will come across better than parents and be able to articulate their argument better. I would certainly recommend seeking professional help (independent) for appealing a statement and going to tribunal. I am sadly very well aware of the fact that this costs and many parents can't afford the money to do this.

    It would be an interesting case study to hold two identical trial tribunals, one using specialist reports and representation and the other using the parents alone and no specialist reports. It wouldn't be hard to guess which way the decision went!!

  25. At 09:49 PM on 25 Jul 2007, concerned mum wrote:

    If you heard the interview Lady Hughes did not dismiss the "grumbling minority" this was a phrase introduced by the interviewer. The tribunal system while not easy is at present the only system parents have. Our appeal was stressful, but facilitated to the best of the ability of the panel and the clerk. It is a shame if people are put off appealing because of the above exchange, there is nothing to be gained from scaring people off. Campain for change is fine and I am not saying change is not needed but making out that things are worse than they are is not helpful to those about to embark on an appeal

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