PARENTS AT loggerheads with education authorities over their children's special needs should not be forced into peace talks as a delaying tactic.
But conciliation, used appropriately, could help prevent views on both sides becoming entrenched, and reduce the bitterness and vitriol sometimes associated with battles over special educational needs provision.
Ministers want to minimise the use of formal special needs procedures - including the issuing of statements and appeals to the special educational needs tribunal. However, in many cases, parents are only able to secure the provision they consider appropriate by taking their education authorities to the tribunal.
The Government wants all education authorities to have conciliation arrangements in place in 2000 - and has said it will legislate to make this a requirement, if necessary. The aim of conciliation is to encourage dialogue between parents, schools and education authorities, and to head off disputes about SEN arrangements quickly.
Draft guidance, currently out for consultation, says such conciliation should not be seen as yet another hurdle for exasperated parents to scale before they can make an appeal to the SEN tribunal for redress.
The guidance emphasises parental rights - in contrast to ministers' initial thoughts about conciliation disclosed in the 1997 Green Paper on special needs.
Excellence for All Children suggested parents might not be able to proceed with an appeal to the independent SEN tribunal if they unreasonably refused to agree to a conciliation meeting.
Instead, the draft guidance says that while one aim of conciliation is to resolve disputes without recourse to the tribunal, "it is essential that conciliation is not put forward as an alternative to the parents registering an appeal ...
"Parents have a right in law to lodge an appeal and conciliation should not be presented as an additional bureaucratic hoop through which parents need to jump before registering an appeal with the tribunal," it states, in bold type for added emphasis.
"That is likely to be seen by many as a delaying tactic and will do nothing to facilitate discussion during conciliation meetings."
Parental participation in conciliation should be voluntary, and all meetings should be considered confidential - meaning that anything said at them should not be used in evidence at tribunals.
Parents can feel daunted by official meetings, so education authorities should consider allowing them to bring along a friend for support, and choosing more neutral settings than those provided by council and school offices.
Publicity about conciliation arrangements should be available in community languages, and schools should also help to promote such services. Schools also have an important role to play in getting everyone talking as soon as problems emerge.
Parents may be put off from approaching conciliation services if they believe they are staffed or run by education authorities, so an independent third party should be involved.
Conciliators will need to be good listeners - able to empathise with others - negotiators and counsellors, and may need specialist training in SEN issues.
They might be drawn from parent partnership officers, educational psychologists, voluntary organisations or regional pools of trained conciliators.
Comments on the draft regulations, timescales and conciliation guidance should be sent to Anne Robertson, SEN Division, Department for Education and Employment, Sanctuary Buildings (area 2T19), Great Smith Street, London SW1P 3BT, tel 0171 925 5089, fax 0171 925 6648.