Mediation is the cornerstone;Enquire;Special needs

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
Confrontation between parents and local authorities is costly, time-consuming and damaging to all concerned, so the Government wants mediation at the top of the special educational needs agenda. It is going to be no easy task in an area where the legislation is notoriously woolly.

In an office in Shandwick Place, Edinburgh, the four-strong team of Enquire appears ready and able to take on the challenge.

Manager Carole Moore has worked for the Special Needs Forum for the past five years and is committed to empowering parents and encouraging mediation. "We are basically seeking to improve the relationship between parents and local authorities. When there is confrontation there is delay and that will inevitably harm the child." She is encouraged by the experience of the United States, where mediation has developed from ad hoc beginnings to become a cornerstone of the SEN process. "The evidence suggests that once you get people round a table they will come to a compromise."

Morag Steven, who will be overseeing the pilot mediation projects, is the mother of an 11-year-old boy who has SEN and cites "11 years of experiencing bureaucracy at its best" as one of her more important qualifications for the job.

She is seeking funding partners for the four pilot projects, and has canvassed local authorities. Eleven out of 32 have expressed interest in taking part in a pilot scheme. Steven hopes voluntary organisations will also come in as partners.

There are problems in running the mediation projects in partnership with local authorities, Steven and Moore admit. Parents will simply not use a mediation service if they suspect it may be biaised in favour of the local authority.

"The mediation co-ordinator for each pilot project would be employed by the local authority or voluntary organisation. We had hoped to be able to fund it ourselves, but it got whittled down in the tendering process," says Carole Moore.

Much of Enquire's budget will be spent on publications, says Ms Moore. The Parent's Guide to Special Educational Needs, previously issued by the Scottish Office, has been rewritten by Enquire. "It was not parent-friendly," says Ms Moore. The new version will be distributed in January.

A video and information pack aimed at children and young people with SEN will be published next year.

"We need to tailor our information and service to young people and children themselves," says Ms Moore. "We'll be doing a consultation in schools to find out exactly what issues we need to address."

Enquire will also be publishing a series of factsheets on different aspects of special needs provision, and materials for training and mediation in SEN.

The staff of Enquire are aware of the vast job ahead. They expect 1,000 helpline enquiries in their first year, and Ms Moore is keen to get involved with pushing SEN issues up the agendas of local and national government.

She seems undaunted by the scale of the task. "You just have to be very clear about your priorities," she says.

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