Cash injection could add fuel to mediation fire

5th September 2008 at 01:00

Conflict between local authorities and parents of children with special needs looks likely to mount, following a Scottish Government decision to boost the funding of parents' advocacy groups.

Adam Ingram, the Children and Early Years Minister, has thrown a lifeline to the organisation that supports most parents involved in tribunals - and has also provided funds to train other groups in handling tribunals.

Recent government consultation revealed that, despite the Additional Support for Learning Act's aim of resolving disputes over special needs provision through mediation, parents had opted instead to pursue their aims through tribunals in the three years since the Act came into force.

Parents' advocacy group Independent Special Education Advice (ISEA) Scotland handles most tribunals, but it looked likely to disappear after three years of National Lottery funding ran out. Now, however, a pound;60,000 award will enable ISEA to continue its work until March, and talks with the Government are ongoing to ensure a longer-term future.

The Government has also given pound;50,000 to the Govan Law Centre for a six- month project to build up the voluntary sector's capacity to support parents at tribunals. The centre will also make recommendations on how the Government can improve this provision in the future.

The funding comes on the back of relationships between parents' groups and councils that have been hostile at times. East Lothian Council, in the recent consultation, described ISEA as "confrontational" and accused it of canvassing parents to become involved in disputes that were not in the best interests of the children.

John Stodter, general secretary of the Association of Directors of Education in Scotland, told The TESS this week: "I think education authorities will be disappointed that legislation which was introduced to actually reduce confrontation between parents and authorities appears not to have worked in that respect."

But Mr Ingram said: "The additional support needs tribunal plays a vital role - listening to the two parties and finding a solution that is in the best interests of the child - and it is crucial that parents continue to get the necessary support."

Lorraine Dilworth, advocacy manager at ISEA, said that the organisation had dealt with most of the 100 tribunals that have taken place since the Act came into force. In each case, relationships with local authorities had deteriorated so badly that mediation was "not an option".

But these were only the "tip of the iceberg" and she revealed that ISEA had chosen not to advertise its services because it would not be able to cope with the likely inundation of pleas for help.

She welcomed the prospect of more groups that could provide the service, but warned that cases were complex as well as time-consuming.

ISEA's involvement in a case - only a minority reach tribunal stage - typically lasts several months, although one family has been in dispute with a local authority for two years. It takes about a week to prepare for a tribunal, which can last up to seven days.

Iain Nisbet, head of the Govan Law Centre's education law unit, said that, while the centre currently dealt with a small number of tribunals, its aim was to take a back seat and to provide advice and training to voluntary organisations instead.

He believes tribunals will become less adversarial as solicitors step back from tribunals and advocacy groups gain the legal skills to add to their existing expertise in additional support needs.

Mr Nisbet said that in 55 per cent of additional support needs tribunals, local authorities had legal representation. In 40 per cent of those, the representation was provided by an advocate rather than a solicitor.

It was unrealistic, therefore, for even the most articulate of parents to represent themselves. Their closeness to the situation and the "emotionally charged" issues involved would undermine the effectiveness of their contribution.

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