Fall in appeals could be result of better practice. George Wright reports.
Parents of children with special needs made fewer appeals against education authority decisions last year. Cases brought to the special educational needs tribunal for Wales (SENTW) fell by more than 15 per cent from 139 to 117 in 2003-4, according to its first annual report.
Previously, cases were under the jurisdiction of the now-disbanded England and Wales tribunal.
Huw Maguire, secretary of SENTW, said the reduction in appeals "could be an encouraging development reflecting stronger relationships between local education authorities and parents, alongside the work of voluntary organisations, parent partnership and disagreement resolution services".
He added: "The tribunal will be interested to see whether the trend continues, or whether it is a blip. We would hope that the lower number of appeals relating to children with statements is due in part to greater communication between LEAs and parents, as encouraged by the SEN code of practice for Wales."
But a leading SEN expert, who preferred to remain anonymous, suggested it may have been due to "political pressure" to cut costs by ensuring early settlement of cases through mediation before they could reach the tribunal.
More than half the appeals involved Cardiff (35) and Newport (15). The SEN expert said it was likely that these authorities had done more to raise awareness about the appeals process among parents, rather than reflecting badly on the quality of SEN provision.
Mr Maguire said the tribunal could not comment on the performance of individual LEAs, and that Jane Davidson, the minister for education and lifelong learning, "must decide where there is cause for concern and what action to take".
The tribunal's annual report suggests the new body is dealing with cases more quickly than its predecessor, in an average 4.1 months compared to 4.3 months previously. Decisions were issued within 10 working days on average.
Of the 117 cases registered by SENTW in its first year, 25 were decided, 59 were withdrawn or conceded, one was struck out and 32 are still pending.
Just over half were about a refusal to assess a child for a statement of SEN or, after an assessment had been carried out, a decision not to make a statement.
A third of cases brought to the tribunal related to children with specific learning difficulties, such as dyslexia and dyspraxia.
More than a fifth involved autism and around 15 per cent of children had multiple special needs.
But the report raises concern over the small number of disability discrimination cases brought before the tribunal - just two in 2003-4.
Rhiannon Ellis Walker, SENTW president, said: "Although this is entirely consistent with (the previous year's) figures from Wales, one wonders whether the appropriate information is widely available."
She suggests schools should inform parents of appeal procedures in their annual reports.
Amanda Kirby, medical director of the Dyscovery Centre, a private clinic that offers educational psychology testing, said there remained "a great need" to understand the impact of the Disability Discrimination Act and how schools and other educational providers can deliver "inclusive models of provision".
She said: "Disability awareness is not just about widening the door but ensuring that all can get through every door easily."
More than half (pound;217,000) of the tribunal's pound;407,000 budget last year was spent on establishing and adapting its offices. Mr Walker said the facilities would be "available to the tribunal and other judicial bodies for a number of years and provide good value over that time".
The presidential route
Rhiannon Ellis Walker, president of SENTW, was born and educated in Denbigh, north Wales. She read education at Bangor university, where she ran a club for children with special needs and wrote a dissertation on the subject.
She qualified as a solicitor and became a partner in a north Wales law firm before joining construction firm Redrow as company secretary. Mrs Walker is a deputy district judge on the north Wales circuit, and became part-time president of the tribunal in April 2003.