Parent power predicted to see surge in SEN appeals

4th March 2011 at 00:00
Charities expect legal changes to lead to further rise in tribunal hearings

New legal powers for parents to appeal against their child's special educational needs (SEN) teaching will mean record numbers of court cases brought against schools, charities have warned.

The number of families going to tribunals continues to rise and, with the new rights, even more will take legal action this year, according to the groups that run free support services. The number of SEN tribunal cases has risen by 64 per cent since 1998. New statistics show that the figure for 2011 is on course to be the highest ever.

Now parents will have new powers to appeal if their child's statement - the legal document setting out the support they are entitled to from teachers and professionals such as speech therapists - is not amended yearly.

They can also bring their case to tribunal if the child's support is not altered after they have been reassessed, and if they disagree with changes to a statement. In the six months between July 2010 and January 2011, 1,830 new tribunal cases began, compared to 1,520 between January and June 2010 - a rise of 16 per cent.

Staff at the charity Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA) and the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) believe many parents will use the new appeal powers, which became law through the Children, Schools and Families Act last spring.

IPSEA chief executive Jane McConnell said: "The number of SEN tribunals will go up this year, particularly now parents have this new right. But most will take action after their child's annual review, so we are likely to see this trend further on into the academic year."

And ACE adviser Lesley Black said: "We do believe when parents have a new right to appeal this will increase the number of cases.

"Many parents don't know about this power yet; the details have only just been posted on the Tribunals Service website, even though it came into force in September."

In 200809, 3,100 tribunal cases were held, which rose to 3,400 in 200910. In 1998, just 2,191 families took their SEN case to tribunal. By 201011, the number of cases is expected to jump again to 3,600. In 1998, just 2,191 families took their SEN case to tribunal.

The rise has been attributed to radical changes to SEN support introduced by local authorities. Many now discourage the use of statements and give money for children with special educational needs directly to headteachers.

Parents or guardians can now ask the school to make amendments to separate parts of the statement - previously for this to happen, the child needed a completely new statement, which meant reassessment by an educational psychologist.

Parents have only been able to appeal to the SEN tribunals if a school or local authority will not carry out a statutory assessment of their child's special educational needs, or if they refuse to give the child a statement.

They can also bring a case if the school or council refuses to reassess the children's SEN, if an expert has not seen the pupil for at least six months and if the statement is not "maintained".

The Department for Education was unavailable for comment.

3,600 - Projected number of tribunal cases in 201011, up from 2,191 in 1998.

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