Independent body to listen and advise
Judging the educational needs of a child with dyslexia, autism or speech problems is not straightforward. Lorraine Dilworth of Independent Special Education Advice (Scotland) says: "When parents go to meetings about their child, there can be 14 professionals sitting round the table, talking a language parents don't understand."
Those assessing the child are employed by the local authority and any appeal is heard by a board, the majority of whom are likely to be members of the education authority the appeal is against. The single thing that would help most parents, and which the Scottish Office is now setting up, is an independent advisory body to tell them about their rights. ISEA has been fulfilling that role for the past 11 months and would like to run the new agency.
In its office above a pub, the director, Lorraine Dilworth, and advocacy worker, Cathy Flynn, have more than 220 cases on their books. From all over Scotland, parents who have felt quite alone in their struggle against local authorities have finally found someone to listen and advise.
"By the time parents come to us they're at the desperation stage," says Cathy Flynn. ISEA tries to help them, showing them how to argue for the education they feel their child needs. Often parents are unaware of their right to appeal.
"After a few phone calls, you can hear the confidence in their voices. They start to say things like, 'I've written to the director of education and told him what my child's rights are.' That's glorious," says Dilworth.
At present, the only way parents can challenge a local authority decision on their child's education is through the courts. "It's ridiculous," says Flynn. "What parent wants to go to court?" ISEA has grown out of a support group of parents, and both Flynn and Dilworth have children with special needs. Volunteers who will run their helpline will usually be parents themselves. In England the equivalent organisation has a list of professionals willing to offer independent advice at minimal cost. In Scotland, so far, there is no such list, and ISEA is aware of only one lawyer who has any expertise in this area.
With only three years' funding, from BBC Children in Need, ISEA hopes to tender for funding from the Scottish Office, and the workers are optimistic. They plan to publish a parents' handbook next year: a blow-by-blow guide to working through the education legislation.
What keeps them going, I ask, as Flynn picks up a call from parent number 223? "I believe that every child has a potential," says Dilworth, "and every child has the right to reach that potential, no matter what it may be."
ISEA, 164 High Street, Dalkeith, Midlothian EH22 1AY. Parents advice line, tel: 0131 454 0082