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Code is a resource not a weapon

An anonymous education officer claimed last week in The TES that parents of children with special needs such as dyslexia "have nothing to lose" from appealing, and are "using the SEN tribunals as a fast track to resources, irrespective of the merits of the case in relation to other children".

This is light years away from the reality for parents. They win on average 50 per cent of cases, and even then do not always gain all that they want. Far from being biased against local education authority concerns, 60 per cent of the lay membership of the tribunals comes from LEAs. Hearings are not about airing grievances, but about meeting individual needs. A quick fix for calculating parents it certainly isn't.

When a child is failing in school, every day of waiting is an eternity. Yet last year the Audit Commission showed that time warps are the norm. Only one in five children in city LEAs - the most needy pupils in the most deprived settings - had their statements processed within the official six-month deadline.

It would be consoling if after this tortuous process tribunals were indeed a "fast track" to resources. But five months is not particularly speedy for a child going downhill.

The strong temptation for parents is not to appeal but to accept the provision they have without threatening existing relations with school and LEA by moving into formal confrontation.

If they do appeal, the experience can be overpowering. Parents with no experience of formal conflict may be plunged into intimidating situations where they are faced by a barrister acting for the LEA. No wonder if parents of dyslexic children come away from tribunal hearings in tears of anger and despair. We hope the Select Committee will tune in to this and recommend a "no lawyers" concordat.

Complaint is made that tribunals are considering appeals without reference to the framework of resources within which LEAs base their decisions. The tribunal should not buy an LEA assessment simply because it slots conveniently into the authority's internal ranking system for resources. It must judge individual cases on their merits.

Like any independent tribunal, the SENT checks the otherwise unbridled power of a Government agency. If their decisions raise implications for special needs spending which have to be addressed by elected politicians, so be it. This is called accountability.

Meanwhile, early intervention alongside genuine parental partnership is the way to do tribunals out of a job. The most important stage of the code of practice is stage zero: differentiated interventions to address individual learning profiles before they become problems.

The needs of a child may not be identified accurately because they look like something else. Difficulties with communication, for example, may stem from different causes which need to be pinpointed.

Research into the biological causes of literacy difficulties has now challenged the kneejerk response that dyslexic difficulties are limited to the middle classes. Despite the Government's acceptance of it as a need under the 1994 code of practice, many schools are still not fully prepared to identify and support the dyslexic child.

In spite of the code, the Secretary of State does not require initial teacher training to equip teachers with more than the foundation to support children with special educational needs. Because severe literacy difficulties will not emerge until the child is in mainstream primary school, there are bound to be more conflicts over the unsuitability of normal school provision.

LEA policies based on quantitative criteria must always leave room for the exercise of judgment, as the authors of the code envisaged. LEAs are bound to get into trouble if their criteria are applied mechanistically.

Agencies such as the British Dyslexia Association do not indiscriminately support parents. We wish to be regarded as a partner to LEAs and schools. Our priorities are the early stages of the code, not the later jousting tournaments. We support the LEAs with parent partnership projects.

One head, seeing a parent enter a meeting bearing a copy of the code of practice, proclaimed: "You're not bringing that thing in here". As long as we see weapons rather than resources in each other's hands, SEN cases are bound to end in tears.

Paul Cann is director of the British Dyslexia Association

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