Families hit out at lies of officials

8th April 2005 at 01:00
Parents of children with autism say staff at local education authorities lie to them and do not listen to their concerns. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

The parents of autistic children have to struggle with lies and deception from local authority officials when trying to secure the appropriate education for their children, according to a report.

The study, Parental Perspectives on Seeking Provision, by Catherine Tissot and Roy Evans of Brunel University, found that red tape and bureaucracy were the biggest source of stress for families. Of the 750 parents interviewed, half cited dealing with local authority staff as stressful; a third said doing so was worse than dealing with social services, or arguing over a lack of school places or funding.

About 60 in 1,000 children in the UK are autistic. Usually, when a child is diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder the family approaches the local authority for help to find an appropriate school.

However, among families' most frequent complaints were inconsistent information from local authorities, and staff "lying" or not listening to concerns. Sixty-five per cent said getting a statement for their children was very or extremely stressful.

The treatment of autistic children sparked a political row last month when the Conservatives seized on the case of Maria Hutchings and her son John Paul to show how Labour's policies were failing.

Hutchings described living through "a nightmare of bureaucracy and lies" to get her son into a special school.

Catherine Tissot, MA director (education) at Brunel, said most parents viewed dealing with local authorities as a confrontation. "This is unnecessary as both parties should have the same interests at heart - providing the best education possible."

The study called for a stricter code of practice on the length of time parents have to wait for agreement on the appropriate education for their child. The current recommendation is six to seven months, but many parents wait much longer.

It also said local authority staff should receive better training to enable them to listen more carefully to parents' concerns.

Tissot said: "The majority of parents still want access to specialist teaching, despite the fact the government is in favour of increasing inclusive education. They want their views to be listened to and acted upon."

One mother, who has been fighting her north London local authority over her autistic son's education, and asked not to be identified, said: "One of the difficulties is that you constantly have to chase the officials to get anything done. If you don't hassle them, nothing happens.

"It's very frustrating. It should not have to be that hard to get a child the education they need."

Jean Salt, president of the National Association for Special Educational Needs, said there is already of code of practice in this area, but it needs to be adhered to more strictly.

She added: "Parents certainly feel let down sometimes. One of the difficulties is that parents' emotions are heightened and officials may see them as pushy."

Tony Lewis, deputy chairman of the Local Government Association's children and young people board, said securing good educational provision for autistic children was "a priority".

But he added: "Local authorities recognise that autistic children and their families face very particular challenges, and that it can be a struggle to find appropriate educational and other support, particularly when resources are limited."

See Julian Elliott, page 9

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