Legal advice for literate parents

Margaret Peter

SPECIAL EDUCATIONAL NEEDS AND THE LAW By Simon Oliver and Lesley Austen Jordans Pounds 19.50.

When lawyers claim to write books for parents on special education law, the first question to ask is: "Which parents?" The price of this paperback, and its gems of legal knowledge protected by impenetrable prose, are indicative. This book will enlighten only the most literate. Parents who qualify for legal aid - and many who do not - would do better to get hold of free copies of The Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Education Needs and its parents' guide from the Department for Education and Employment, and the advice from the Special Educational Needs Tribunal on How to Appeal.

They might also turn to voluntary bodies like the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA), whose guide Taking Action! (Questions Publishing, Pounds 11 to Pounds 13.99) will pilot them through the murky waters of special education law with more clarity and at less cost.

The authors also target "those involved in the delivery of the school curriculum" and lawyers. Here, the book may have more to offer. Although the first part of the book consists largely of quotes and paraphrases from the Code of Practice, the authors add comment and context and interweave related regulations, circulars and legal cases. This will be helpful to governors, legal advisers and parent advocates.

In the second part of the book, Oliver and Austen concentrate on appeals to the Special Educational Needs Tribunal: its structure and administration, parents' rights of appeal, pre-hearing and hearing procedures, financial matters and appeals from the tribunal's decisions.

Nearly 100 pages of appendices include Part III of the 1993 Education Act, regulations and the summary charts of assessments and appeal procedures. Here, too, some useful information also covers early tribunal decisions. Teachers, however, may be disappointed. The valuable contribution of special needs co-ordinators and other teaching staff to tribunal hearings is mentioned only briefly. The authors advise parents to apply for a witness summons "if the teacher refuses (or is not permitted) to attend". The advice is timely in view of recent IPSEA claims that teachers are being intimidated from giving evidence freely by some local education authorities.

The authors have tried valiantly to make their book up-to-date, adding information to within three months of its publication date (July 1996). Inconveniently for them and their readers, the 1993 Education Act is repealed today, November 1, and special education law was incorporated into the consolidating Education Act of 1996. The frequently cited Sections from 156 onwards have been re-numbered and now begin at Section 312. Readers need to be well advanced in literacy and number to digest the 13 chapters of this book.

Margaret Peter is former editor of The British Journal of Special Education.

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