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SEN pupils could get power of appeal

Children in English secondary schools would be able to bring legal action independently of their parents

Children in English secondary schools would be able to bring legal action independently of their parents

Children with special needs will be able to appeal independently of their parents when they are unhappy with their school or teaching, if government plans in England get the green light.

According to a recent consultation, giving secondary pupils new legal powers will make the process fairer for those with families unwilling or unable to act on their behalf.

Department for Children, Schools and Families officials believe the decision to give children new rights is in line with the general principle of "pupil voice" - giving them more say in decisions which affect them.

This is a more radical step than the recent legislation in Scotland on additional support for learning, which gave parents of special needs youngsters new rights to make placing requests, and strengthened the role of disputes resolution.

On both sides of the border, parents are said not to be as aware of their rights as they should be. In England, there is concern that too few cases are referred to the Special Educational Needs and Disability tribunals - especially those involving looked-after children or those from ethnic minorities. In the 2007-08 academic year, 3,392 tribunal appeals were registered but only 1,040 got through to the hearing stage.

The largest number (40 per cent) of appeals concern a school or local authority's refusal to assess the child. Around 48 per cent of cases are brought by parents unhappy with the contents of all or part of their child's statement (formerly, the record of needs in Scotland).

A DCSF spokesman said a "competency measure" could be introduced to make sure the child has the right level of understanding to coordinate the legal action.

SEN experts say looked-after children with "corporate parents" are actually more likely to need support when mounting any legal challenge. Special Education Consortium chairman thinks looked-after children should be able to ask a social worker, teacher or other impartial adult to refer their case to a tribunal.

The SEC also wants more support for children bringing their own cases. "It would be entirely unrealistic to expect children to lay out the grounds for appeal, respond to the local authority, prepare the necessary paperwork, and represent themselves in a tribunal setting," he said.

It also thinks even younger children should be given the right to appeal on their own and that a competency test should not be used.

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