Entitlement to special needs must be preserved

8th March 1996 at 00:00
The howl of anger from the anonymous education officer (TES, March 1) is a sure sign that the decisions of the special needs tribunal are beginning to bite.

The tribunal is forcing local education authorities into decisions that are consistent with law and LEA officers don't like it. After years of playing the special needs game by their own rules, the LEAs now hate the newly-appointed referee. How long before they stamp off and threaten to take the ball?

Over the past 13 years, the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice has supported thousands of parents of children with all kinds of special needs. If those parents are angry and traumatised, it is not because they need counselling to accept their child's disability but because they are constantly faced with evasion and contempt from their LEA.

The writer of the article, "A slippery fast track to help?", speaks of tribunal chairs who are "ignorant" of special education but fails to mention the other two members of every panel, both of whom will have many years of experience of special education either as practitioners or (even!) LEA officers.

The real rub is that the chairs know about the law. The law is based on the individual entitlement of each child, not on "complex exercises of what locally constitutes special needs". Each child is entitled to have their needs assessed, met and provided for. In that sense, special education law differs from, for example, community care legislation where, whatever the need, what is provided depends on available resources.

At IPSEA, we know from experience that LEA professionals are often gagged and unable to specify what children need. We know that they are now being prevented from attending tribunals which can compel them to be honest about needs and provision. Only this week, an LEA psychologist who had supported a parent verbally in the past failed to turn up at the tribunal when he heard he was likely to be put on oath. Is it surprising, then, that parents bring in independent witnesses who have no constraints on what they can say?

IPSEA has little experience of independent professionals who fix test scores to prove points. In our experience, professional witnesses give an independent picture of the child's needs and make fair comments. If LEAs followed the law, their professional witnesses could do the same and the tribunal could be a forum for honest disagreement.

The real problem is that the tribunal can only deal with the cases brought before it. It is up to the voluntary sector to support those parents who might be unwilling to challenge authority and who may lack resources. We find the tribunals are making sound decisions consistent with the law - and they are getting stronger as their experience grows. We should be enabling as many parents as possible to gain access to these decisions.

Meanwhile, what should our anonymous LEA officer be doing? He should get back on the field, accepting that he now has to follow the rules. After matches, he should use his considerable energy to convince his local councillors and policy-makers that the law is now being enforced.

The law is about the entitlement to special education provision for what is a very small number of children. We should all work together to preserve that entitlement.

KATY SIMMONS

Co-ordinator

Independent Panel for Special Education Advice

Marlow, Bucks

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