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Pleas for special needs help 'illegally rejected'

A leading special educational needs lobby group claims local education authorities are attempting to reduce expenditure by illegally rejecting some applications for special needs help.

The Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice (IPSEA) says some LEAs have refused statements for children irrespective of their individual educational needs because they do not form part of a notional 2 per cent of needy cases referred to in the 1981 Education Act.

John Wright of IPSEA claims LEAs are squandering public funds by defending such cases at appeals tribunals which they have little chance of winning. The allegations come as authorities are facing ever-increasing costs of providing for special educational needs (SEN) since the introduction in September 1994 of tribunals which give parents the right of appeal to an independent panel.

Mr Wright said some LEAs had tried, in an attempt to reduce the number of statements, to reject children who are "not among the most disabled 2 per cent in the county".

John Fowler of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities said the practice, if true, misled parents. "If it is the case I can only think that these are the unsanctioned actions of an LEA officer," he said.

Mr Wright believes some LEAs could soon be spending more money fighting appeals than on statemented children.

In its submission to the House of Commons Education Select Committee in February, Birmingham LEA put the figure of defending appeals at Pounds 2,000 per hearing. Others including Bedfordshire, Bexley and Devon complained of the cost of losing tribunal hearings.

Mr Wright said: "We must be rapidly approaching the point where the continual attempts by education authorities to avoid their duty in law to meet the special educational needs of children will cost them more than financing effective provisions."

IPSEA - founded in 1993 to help parents through SEN assessments and tribunals - has 200 volunteer workers and six paid advisers. It deals with the majority of Britain's LEAs and last year saw through 1,200 cases of complaint, around one third of which reached a tribunal. The charity also claims to have found evidence of witness intimidation.

In a series of confidential interviews conducted over a 12-month period, one in three parents complained that witnesses called on their behalf had been warned by their LEA not to oppose its decision at tribunal.

According to IPSEA, one LEA officer warned a headteacher before a hearing that he was "expendable"; another head of a special school was warned that if he testified against his LEA he could face a salary cut and and his pension rights could be affected.

In separate case an SEN co-ordinator who was to testify in favour of the parents was sent for "training in tribunal procedure", which she said amounted to blatant intimidation.

Mr Wright said LEAs should refocus their efforts on planning for the education of SEN children in a way that is defensible before a tribunal.

"Tribunals are forcing LEAs to fund more, and better, provision on a one-off basis, which denies them the economy of scale available when adequate provision for children with special needs is properly planned on an area wide basis" he said.

Mr Wright said evidence to the Education Select Committee revealed that authorities have a poor understanding of their legal obligations. Hampshire and Surrey LEAs, for example, claimed wrongly that speech therapy was not an educational but a health provision.

Mr Wright said, "The sooner elected members grasp the facts and calculate the costs the sooner they will accept the need for a fresh approach, one which is more in tune with children's needs. "

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