It was an unsettling letter to receive. The school was doing its best for the Year 7 pupil, but he was plagued by up to eight epileptic seizures a day - the result of a serious brain injury.
His mother sent a letter to Geoff Roberts*, director of the school's curriculum. It read: "When my child dies of a seizure at the school, I'm going to sue you."
Mr Roberts could understand her anxiety, but his hands were tied when it came to offering more medical assistance. Only three children with this type of severe need were in mainstream education in the UK at the time (2003), and the school, a mainstream secondary, did not have the expertise to meet his substantial needs.
In addition to fighting for greater support from the local authority, Mr Roberts concentrated on managing the existing risks and creating good communication between the parents, school, pupil and outside agencies.
Over time, the school established a much better working relationship with the boy's parents and he came to no harm. Now complaints about special educational needs (SEN) provision at the school are almost non- existent.
Yet few other schools can boast this level of parental satisfaction from those with children with SEN. Instead, most are familiar with a small but vocal group of incensed parents who believe the school is failing to meet their child's specific needs. The long-awaited Lamb inquiry into SEN even dubbed them "warrior parents", constantly at odds with a system struggling to cope.
The "real story" of the SEN system is one of "unwarranted and unnecessary struggle" for too many parents, states the final report, published in December 2009. "For some, what should be easy becomes hard, where there should be support there can be indifference, and when there should be speed there is delay."
And despite trying to include children with special needs in the mainstream school system, SEN provision is so variable that it can end up pitting schools against the very families they are trying to help.
"Parents can feel very dissatisfied with the level of support they receive from schools," confirms Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of special needs charity Nasen. "The system can feel very long-winded, expensive and bureaucratic."
There is clearly a gap between parents' expectations and what schools can afford to provide. But experts, special needs co-ordinators (Sencos), external agencies and parents can all agree that the key to a better relationship is a more open and honest dialogue. As Brian Lamb, the report's author, concluded: "Where things go wrong, the root causes can often be traced to poor communication."
Since 2008, all teachers new to the Senco role must gain a masters level qualification. This makes them a particularly "up-skilled" faction of the staffroom, attests Ms Petersen. However, they remain critically short of time.
Sencos in primary schools (and some secondaries) may also still have a full-time teaching commitment. One Senco known to Ms Petersen had just half a day a term to dedicate to her SEN role, despite some 50 pupils (20 per cent of the school) being on the SEN register. "How can you support, liaise and communicate with parents with so little time?" Ms Petersen asks.
Mr Roberts, a Senco with nine years' experience, agrees that time management can be a challenge. Although just 60 of the 1,300 pupils at his school have statements, almost one in six need some kind of special needs intervention.
Annual review meetings for those with statements or action plans, which involve a number of agencies, can each take up to five hours to complete once all the administration and follow-up work is dealt with. At Mr Roberts' school, that equates to almost two months' worth of work for these official meetings alone.
"The biggest issue for Sencos is time, which is why I try to make sure all issues are regularly discussed," Mr Roberts says. "If not, managing special needs can look a bit like a heart monitor, with lots of peaks and troughs in terms of parental anxiety."
To achieve this level of contact, Mr Roberts has had to delegate and share responsibility with other teachers. Almost half his time involves training other members of staff, who quickly become competent in handling and anticipating parents' queries.
He does not "do" informal chats with parents in the playground, but he will always arrange a formal meeting, with either himself or a member of the team, within 48 hours of a request. This allows parents to reflect on what they are going to say, and for teachers to gather relevant evidence.
Regular positive texts or postcards home to the families of vulnerable children help to minimise the need for these meetings. As well as keeping parents in the loop, they can trigger more positive conversations between parent and child.
"Many pupils with SEN will not be that communicative with their parents," Mr Roberts says. "Instead of saying they did `nothing' at school, the parent can prompt them about something they have done really well, which they learnt about via text. The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive."
"Overly pushy parents" is another common gripe among teachers. A primary school Senco says one parent of a child with slight cerebral palsy is making her life "totally miserable".
The perceived shortcomings of the school's provision are regularly fed back to the Senco via the local authority or speech and language therapist "who seems to think she knows more about the education of the child than I do". The girl is making steady progress with her learning, albeit within the low-ability bracket, but the parents are still pushing for a statutory assessment.
"She really does not meet the criteria for an assessment," the Senco says in the TES online forums. "I'm sick to death of health professionals trying to tell me how to do my job."
There is some justification for this complaint, Ms Petersen believes. "As an ex-teacher myself, I know teachers want a good relationship with parents, but they also want to be trusted to do the best job they can."
A statement specifying that a pupil is entitled to 15 hours of support, for example, may encourage a parent to push for all 15 hours from a teaching assistant (TA). However, the TA's time may be better spent leading the whole class for parts of the lesson, while the classroom teacher supports the child with special needs or works with small groups, including those with SEN.
Again, it comes back to communication, insists Ms Petersen. "If a parent is made aware why things are as they are, it will often avert a problem becoming a big deal."
Mike Wall* has been a secondary Senco for the same school in Wiltshire for 12 years. Inevitably, there have been difficult relationships with parents over the years. Most have usually arisen from "unrealistic expectations" among a small minority of parents, he says.
One was the parent of a pupil who had received a diagnosis of Asperger's syndrome during the summer holidays. On the first day of term, a paediatrician's report was waiting on Mr Wall's desk. The mother immediately expected full-time one-on-one support in all her son's lessons, even though the boy did not have a statement yet and had only just moved into the School Action Plus (further assessment and advice from outside services) category that term.
"There are quite a few other parents who imagine that a new diagnosis or the issuing of a statement will hugely and instantly alter provision," Mr Wall says.
Progress will inevitably be hindered if a teacher is not overly knowledgeable about SEN. Mr Wall and his team of four teachers and 33 TAs spend a lot of time training staff, but he insists it is unfair to expect teachers to be experts in every element of special needs. Instead, he should be allowed to act as intermediary.
"One parent wanted me to copy a five-page report from an educational psychologist to all her son's teachers," he says. "I explained it was my job to summarise this and circulate the main points to staff and incorporate them into the individual education plan."
Pushy parents are not a luxury afforded to Giles Civil, head of Welland Primary School in Peterborough. He is used to working in challenging schools in challenging areas, and his new post at Welland is no different.
Around 60 per cent of pupils are on free school meals and 46 per cent are on the school's vulnerable pupil register. Rather than pushing the school to meet its statutory requirements, a large proportion of parents are either not interested enough in their child's education, or do not have sufficient language skills or confidence to navigate the system in their child's favour.
This does not stop an evaluation meeting occurring five times a year to monitor problems and direct those most in need towards a statement. Not that the local authority is always keen to press ahead with a statement, according to Mr Civil: a pupil requiring 30 hours of specialist support a week will cost the LEA an additional pound;18,000 a year.
It is this reluctance by local authorities to meet their legal responsibilities that causes parents most anxiety, argues John Wright, a legal support worker for the Independent Parental Special Educational Advice (IPSEA) charity. Unfortunately, it is teachers who may be caught in the crossfire.
"Parents can be frustrated with schools, but any tension between parents and teachers is usually based on a misunderstanding," Mr Wright says. "Local authorities may try to argue that they have delegated funds to a school so their hands are tied, but schools are not legally bound to provide special needs provision - LEAs are."
In Mr Wright's experience, common issues with LEA provision usually revolve around one of three things: a refusal to push ahead with a requested statutory assessment; an assessment that concludes that a statement is not necessary, or slow or non-existent provision in response to an issued statement.
But parents need to remember that a statement is not always the best way forward for those with lower level needs, argues Donald Rae, an adviser with the Local Government Group, which provides legal training for the public sector. "Instead of developing an expensive and bureaucratic statement, the focus should instead be on appropriate provision," he says.
"I have huge sympathy for parents of children with special needs who feel they constantly have to battle against the system to get the best for their child, but it shouldn't be about having to fight. Rather, parents should discuss what long term outcomes they want for their child with local authorities, schools and other agencies and how those can be best achieved."
Such dialogue can become heated, however, if parents feel their legal entitlements are not being met. And although the ultimate responsibility may lie with the LEA, it is frontline teachers who most often bare the brunt of their ire. "It's a sorry state of affairs that pits teachers against parents," says a mother of a special needs child on the TES forums.
"If we fail to do something for our child, then we can never go back and correct that failure. Better then to try to do everything we can, and if we make mistakes, or even upset a few teachers by our choices, then that is something . we have to be prepared to do."
At Mr Civil's former school he was rarely pushed to do more by parents. Instead, the parents frequently had more troublesome special needs than their children. "Their own social skills were very poor," he says. "They had two emotions: either very angry or very happy. One minute they were threatening to beat me up and the next they wanted to be my best mate."
Mr Civil's current inclusion team keep "plugging away" at getting parents more involved in the school and their children's education, especially for the 28 per cent of pupils with SEN. Attendance at parents' evenings has shot up from 70 to 95 per cent since September, mainly by making them more sociable events.
Written feedback can now be left easily at Welland's parents' evenings. Parents can browse relevant stands or chat to teaching assistants in classrooms while refreshments are served and their children play in the activity area. It all makes for a more enjoyable and less threatening event, Mr Civil believes.
"We have to be imaginative to engage parents," he says. "Formal letters of information do not work. But we still have to bring parents on board if they are to really support their children."
Kingsbridge Community College in Devon is in the fortunate position of having extremely supportive parents of children with special needs. But this good relationship did not come about by accident, says Jim Barnicott, its Senco.
The college begins by discussing possible issues with parents of primary- aged children - talking through their needs and discussing where problems could arise.
"They may be concerned about their child travelling on the school bus or between classrooms in a secondary setting," Mr Barnicott says. "They may get lost or get on the wrong bus if there is a delay at the end of the day. Our job is to put their minds at rest that the support is there, that a contingency plan is in place."
Most parents - but especially those of children with SEN - want to be assured that their child will not get lost in the system, Mr Barnicott adds. He tries to personalise the college as much as possible by making sure there is always a clear point of contact for the parents, good communication and a strong transition programme from primary to secondary school.
It is exactly this sort of action - one that looks after the educational, emotional, social and behavioural elements of pupils with SEN - that the Lamb inquiry has been championing. The inquiry's recommendations are now out for consultation, with a white paper expected later this year, before they are potentially enshrined in law.
Ms Petersen says schools need to act now if they don't want to come unstuck next year. "Fights can start when communication breaks down," she summarises. "Even if a parent hears from their child rather than from the teacher that they have been moved to a lower reading book, it can cause unintended problems."
Rather than wait for that to happen, teachers need to be proactive, she argues. By taking on board parental views and treating them as equal partners in the education of their child from the start, the potential for disputes can be greatly reduced. The current system may be difficult to navigate for all concerned, but pitting parents against teachers isn't going to help anyone.
* Names have been changed
- About 20 per cent of pupils (almost 1.7 million) have been identified as having SEN in England.
- Just under 3 per cent of all children (222,000) have a statement.
- For pupils aged seven and under, speech, language and communication issues prevail.
- For seven to 11-year-olds, moderate learning difficulties are most common.
- For 12 to 17-year-olds, behavioural, social and emotional difficulties are most common.
- Boys are two and a half times more likely to have a statement than girls.
Source: The Lamb Inquiry: Special Educational Needs and Parental Confidence, December 2009
WHAT PARENTS CAN EXPECT
- Information and transparency: Information should be tailored to the individual's needs and be readily accessible in a range of formats.
- Assessment: Child-centred multi-agency co-ordinated services should be put in place from the point of referral through to identification, assessment and delivery.
- Participation and feedback: Pupils and their families need to be routinely involved in making decisions about their treatment, care and support, and in shaping services.
Source: The Aiming High for Disabled Children Core Offer, DCSF; May 2008.
- Original headline: Caught in a tangle