For many parents, finding out that their child has special educational needs is a shock and they don't know where to turn for help," says a spokesperson for the Advisory Centre for Education. With one in five children in Britain currently being identified as having special educational needs at some point in their school lives, this is an increasing experience among parents. They discover that the term "special needs" applied to their child also encompasses a wide range of learning difficulties including dyslexia, dyspraxia, behavioural difficulties and developmental delay.
In 1994, against a background of mounting parental appeals to the Special Needs Tribunal, government funding was made available to local education authorities to establish their own parent partnership schemes to support and advise parents.
The schemes aim to "encourage partnership between parents, LEAs, schools and voluntary bodies in the work of identifying, assessing and arranging provision for pupils with special educational needs". Partnership between parents and professionals, and the importance of collaborative practice, are now central to the development and implementation of current special needs policies, and is a key feature of the draft consultation Special Educational Needs Code of Practice (2000), which can be seen at web: www.dfee.gov.co.uk.
Yet the findings of a research study I am carrying out suggest that the rhetoric of "parent partnership" contrasts sharply with the reality of many parents' and professionals' experiences.
My findings suggest that parents often endure lonely and frustrating battles as they strive to gain recognition of their children's needs in the form of a statement from LEAs that sets out what a child's needs are, how these will be met and by whom. The study evaluates the parent partnership scheme provision existing in one LEA. Interviews were carried out with teachers, LEA professionals and parents of children with special needs. This qualitative data was underpinned by a survey of teachers' and parents' experiences in a primary school and in secondary schools in the LEA.
Lack of communication from the LEA is commonly cited as a major hurdle by teachers and parents involved in the statementing process.
Lea Grant, mother of 10-year-old Shelley (all names have been changed) recalls her experiences of contacting her town hall to find out the results of an LEA assessment of her dyslexic daughter's reading abilities. "I kept ringing and writing letters but it was the same old story - they 'will get back to you' - and they never did. I really didn't know what to do to get Shelley the help she needed. I was at my wits' end. One of the other Mums in the playground mentioned the guidance she had received from the parent partnership lady and I got in touch with her - I am so glad I did."
In contrast with non-LEA-based parent partnership schemes that exist in the voluntary sector (such as IPSEA and ACE), the LEA-based schemes have a parent partnership officer (PPO) who can help parents gain advice and support from within the decision-making organisation itself. "We act as the go-betweens. We can help parents get what they want for their child, but also mediate between the parents and the LEA," says Janet Turone, PPO for Harrow.
Jacqueline Hashemi, PP for Barnet, agrees. "We are able to sit down with parents and give them time to explain the procedures with them, offering independent advice," she says. PPOs can also arrange for trained volunteers to accompany parents to official meetings about their child, or simply act as a "sounding board" for parents' worries and concerns.
The study found that parents were often initially concerned that the advice given by PPOs might not be independent since it was given from within the LEA, with whom the parents were often already in conflict. However, all parents who were interviewed quickly overcame their initial concerns about the quality and objectivity of parent partnership scheme advice. The support of parent partnership personnel was consistently valued highly by the parents who used them.
Lea Grant recalls: "Shelley's teacher did her best to help but in the end it comes down to the parent to keep pushing for support. Once I got in touch with the PPO, she got on the case and knew which buttons to press. Eventually, Shelley got the extra support that she needed, but I really don't know where we would have been without the help of the PPO."
Anne Ferguson, mother of seven-year-old Luke, who has recently been identified as having Asperger's syndrome, agrees: "When they first told me that Luke needed a 'statement' I thought it was something you got from a bank. When Parent Partnership got involved they explained things to me so that I could fight for what my son needed. My major concern is that schools don't know about the service."
A further pound;18 million has recently been designated to develop and expand parent partnership schemes into all local authorities by 2003, making a firm philosophical and practical commitment to their future. Yet 80 per cent of parents and teachers who participated in the study were unaware of the existence of parent partnership schemes.
One PPO expresses no surprise at this statistic. "Senior management in LEAs often perceive parent partnership as aggravation and prefer not to highlight the availability of the service to parents and teachers," he says. "Resources are limited and the specialised advice and support received from the parent partnership personnel can often enable parents to understand and challenge LEAs' decisions much more successfully than they would do alone."
Sources of advice:
* Local town halls can advise teachers and parents of their parent partnership scheme provision.
* Advisory Centre for Education (ACE), tel: 0207 354 8321.Web: www.ace-ed.org.uk:
Children with Special Needs is an ACE list outlining organisations offering support to children with different medical conditions, disabilities and learning difficulties. pound;1.50
* Independent Panel for Special Education Advice (IPSEA), tel: 0800 0184016. Web: www.ipsea.org.uk
* Special Educational Needs, a guide for parents describes the stages and how the Code of Practice works. Code of Practice on the Identification and Assessment of Special Educational Needs is a detailed guide describing the legal responsibilities of schools and LEAs. Both free from the Department for Education and Employment, tel: 0845 6022260.
* Working with Parents as Partners In SEN by Eileen Gascoigne. (David Fulton, pound;16)
Susanna Pinkus is carrying out this research at Clare College, Cambridge, Trinity Lane, Cambridge CB2 1TL. E-mail: email@example.com