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Oil on troubled waters;Opinion;News and opinion

Education officials want to get in touch with parents' feelings on resolving special needs disputes but Chris Gravell asks what happened to old-fashioned,

trustworthy advice.

WHEN PARENTS' organisations were consulted on proposals for conciliation in disputes over special education needs, they made their dissatisfaction clear.

Refusing to be blinded by rhetoric, they complained: "Parents will rightly feel patronised to know that the procedures will be allowed an 'element of independence', particularly when this element is directed at removing the parent's 'perceived bias' of a conciliator or 'parental perceptions'."

Whatever parents and their representatives say, though, it's a done deal. This consultation was as unreal as the independence of conciliation schemes, which are to be set up and managed by LEAs. Before the consultation, LEAs had already been invited by the Department for Education and Employment to submit bids to the Standards Fund to establish their conciliation services. The week after the consultation closed the Queen's Speech told us that the law was to be changed to oblige LEAs to set up these schemes.

Parents' groups received another missive from the same DFEE team asking for contributions to a review of the SEN Tribunal, an independent national body which resolves disputes between parents and LEAs. The first two questions strike fear into our hearts:

"Do you think there is a need for a formal system to resolve disputes between parents and LEAs in relation to SEN? If yes, is the tribunal the most suitable body to do this?"

Those of us who can remember the lack of redress for parents before the tribunal was introduced wonder why these questions are being asked.

Perhaps I'm paranoid, but I see these developments as part of a coherent attack on parents' rights. There are more advisers, supporters and conciliators, but none is genuinely independent. They believe (like the researcher who carried out the study, upon which the DFEE has built the conciliation edifice) that all they have to do is to create "an open, honest and trusting relationship". They also believe that the conciliation meetings are appropriate places for "feelings to be explored . before moving both parties forward".

Jane Hall, the researcher, has probably never fielded advice line calls or advocated for parents at meetings, and will therefore be unaware of how wildly inappropriate, not to say dangerously naive, such touchy-feely stuff is.

She did, however, speak to a few parents during her research. They were very open with her, saying that the LEA seemed more concerned about its resources than their children's individual needs, that the LEA deliberately delayed and drew out the assessment and statement process and that the LEA was selective about the information it used and ignored parents' views and evidence. They were also not told how vital it was that they gave the right kind of evidence of their children's need for more support. They cited instances of the unjustness and unfairness of the system, with a special mention of the lack of good information.

I found this section of the research report ironic because the concerns cited by the parents, such as breaches of time limits or poor and inappropriate statements, are things parents can take action on if they are given better information on their rights. If they had this information, they would not need conciliation. But the researcher was interested only in their feelings.

While feelings are being explored in an open and trusting way, will parents be distracted from practical remedies? Are New Age aromatherapy and clouds of tea tree oil to replace proper dispute resolution?

Parents have strict time limits to comply with if they are to seek real solutions, and all these new people seem likely to confuse and confound them.

Meanwhile, genuinely independent organisations like the IPSEA must appeal to parents for funds because the big funders, such as Lottery, have not backed them. Do funders believe there is no longer a need for truly

independent and practical parent support? Have they been misled into thinking that that is now to be provided by the "independent parental supporter" (also part of the Standards Fund kit)?

This could render the word "independent" meaningless, like "natural" or "home-made" on food labels. If fewer parents manage to find trustworthy advice, then two ambitions, long held by local government and the DFEE, will be realised. There will be fewer assessments demanded by parents (therefore fewer statements) and fewer tribunal appeals. There will also be fewer children whose needs are met properly, but perhaps that won't matter because their parents will have been conciliated.

Chris Gravell is the parent of a disabled child and a volunteer worker for the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice

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