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Rise in special needs drains council funds

A dramatic rise in the number of parents who challenge local authority decisions about their children's special needs is stretching council budgets to the limit and diverting money from the most needy children, according to a new survey.

The investigation into the effects of the Special Educational Needs Tribunal in LEAs was commissioned by the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association for County Councils. The results from 15 London boroughs, the first to be published, reveal that the number of appeals against LEA decisions has increased from an average of 22 a year to 114 last year. About half were successful. The tribunal was introduced in 1994.

Under the old system there were 15 appeals. In the tribunal's first year there were 49 appeals, jumping to114 in the second year. There was a large variation in the number of appeals reported by different authorities: two had none and one 27.

Nine authorities responded to a question on how much costs had increased since the introduction of the tribunal. One reported an increase of Pounds 150, 000 in the first year and Pounds 50,000 in the second.

Sheila Knight, chair of the Association of London Government, said councils were having to find "anything up to an extra Pounds 150,000 a year from very limited resources just to meet the cost of preparing and presenting cases". She added that the tribunal was making "many inconsistent and poor-quality decisions that set dangerous precedents".

The tribunal judges each case on its merits under the law, the councils argue, and does not take account of the picture of special needs across the authority. Nor does the tribunal have financial accountability, while for the LEA, a child can cost as much as Pounds 250,000 over its school lifetime.

Councils complained of parents abusing the system by placing their child in independent special schools without LEA approval and then seeking the costs by going to tribunal. Councils were also concerned about the status of "experts" called by parents or special interest groups on behalf of parents.

John Fowler, education officer at the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, accused well-funded dyslexia groups of "stoking" the system. "LEAs are angry at having to fork out vast sums of money for children who barely need statementing at the expense of children who need it more," he said. "Some special needs are very class-related."

Jonathan Owen, who is directing the survey, said parents' expectations had been raised but there was not enough money going into local government to meet them.

The survey is to be published in the next month. Councils will ask the Government for a review of the tribunal. London councils want an independent conciliation service that would cut the number of appeals reaching tribunal. Witnesses acting on parents' behalf would have to declare any financial or other relationship with the special school they were recommending.

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