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Special needs staff 'face intimidation'

Some local authorities are trying to prevent teachers attending tribunal hearings for parents who have appealed for better special educational needs services for their children, according to a new report by a leading advice and lobby group.

The report, by the Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice (IPSEA), which has represented parents at 60 hearings of the special needs tribunal, set up by the 1993 Education Act to allow dissatisfied parents to challenge local education authorities' assessments of their children's needs, is based on a survey of 42 of the families it has helped.

The survey found only three cases in which local authority employees attended tribunal hearings "quite willingly". Twelve families felt obliged to issue summonses to compel staff to attend.

"In the majority of cases parents issued the summonses to protect their witnesses, because they were sensitive to the position of the professionals involved," says the report.

Teachers are unwilling to attend sessions of the special needs tribunal because they are fearful for their job prospects, and some local authorities are intimidating staff, hoping to prevent them supporting children who have appealed.

"There were several examples of a summons being used in a straightforward way to force a reluctant witness to attend," the report says. "In two of the cases reviewed, however, a summons was issued in response to a more sinister set of circumstances."

One parent told IPSEA: "We called the special needs co-ordinator in our child's school and put her on oath. She had been threatened by the LEA who said her job was at stake and told her she wouldn't find a job anywhere else."

In some cases, says the report, concern for the people involved had actually prevented parents calling the witnesses they wanted. "We were going to ask the child's teacher but she declined after pressure from the LEA," said one parent.

Trevor Aldridge QC, president of the tribunal, said in his annual report: "It turns out that in some cases local education authorities are reluctant that any of their employees, and this will particularly apply to teachers, should give evidence 'for' the parents and 'against' the authority. This takes a confrontational view of the appeal to the tribunal which seems unfortunate. "

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