It's painful - but it is democratic

Special needs tribunals are now well-established, but there is still debate on whether they work. David Budge reports

It is now five years since special needs tribunals were established to settle disputes between parents and local education authorities - but a new study shows that opinion is still divided on whether they have been a help or hindrance.

The tribunals have given parents more say over how their children are educated. But some local education authority officials believe the pendulum has swung too far and complain that the appeals system creates unacceptable pressures.

One education authority officer questioned by the National Foundation for Educational Research said: "I am quite a strong character but there were times when I felt that stress levels were beyond all reasonableness. Weeks of my time were consumed by it all." Another said that he had left one tribunal feeling "like a Kray twin".

Part of the problem is that there have been many more appeals than was originally envisaged and the number has been increasing every year. In 1996-97 just over 2,000 cases were registered.

They covered a range of issues but half were brought by parents challenging statements of special need drawn up for their child.

Previous surveys have shown that education authorities resent the time that the tribunal process takes and the cost of fighting cases - especially where parents hire a solicitor or barrister. They have also complained that middle-class parents make disproportionate use of the appeals system and are more likely to get their children placed in unnecessarily expensive residential schools.

The foundation's survey, carried out between September 1997 and April 1998, confirms that local authorities still feel aggrieved about this struggle between "the needy and the greedy". These are the cases which most undermine the credibility of tribunals in the eyes of education authorities, says the NFER, which conducted a postal survey of all English and Welsh authorities and a more detailed study of 25 authorities.

"Almost all the local authorities in the detailed study had examples of decisions which they felt were arbitrary or unfair," the NFER report says.

One local education officer said that a tribunal had upheld eight parents' requests to have their dyslexic children educated at residential independent schools at a total cost of Pounds 1.5 million. "That is an immoral amount of money," she said.

Nevertheless, the research showed that many education officers believe the tribunal system has been beneficial. Some officers said that tribunals had highlighted the lack of provision for autism and dyslexia and had prompted a tightening of their quality-control systems.

Tribunals had also identified gaps in staff expertise and had caused local authorities to introduce training programmes. And they had encouraged them to improve communication with schools, the voluntary sector and parents. "Officers in a number of education authorities reported that they had changed their 'take it or leave it' stance towards parents after the production of a draft statement of special needs," the report says.

The report also points out that tribunals have helped to equalise the power relationship between parents and local authority representatives.

"Although this is uncomfortable for the authorities, many respondents acknowledged that it was an important aspect of the democratic process. Both parents and authority officers were, on the whole, positive about the way in which the tribunals were conducted," the report says.

"The negative impacts of the tribunal may tend to overshadow the positives for some local education authorities, but it is important to balance the two aspects and not to lose sight of the contribution tribunals have made to improvements in decision-making."

"Getting it right: LEAs and the special educational needs tribunal", by Jennifer Evans, price Pounds 6, is available from the Dissemination Unit, NFER, The Mere, Upton Park, Slough, Berkshire SL1 2DQ.

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