SEN pupils given the right to not remain silent
For the first time, pupils with special educational needs (SEN) could be allowed to bring their own legal action in disputes about their schooling.
Pilot schemes will be run in 2014 to test the idea of allowing pupils - the age range is as yet undecided - to take cases to SEN tribunals themselves, rather than relying on parents or guardians to act for them.
Currently, only parents or those with parental responsibility can go through the process. The changes could be particularly important for looked-after children, whose parents and carers are unlikely to be able to act for them in disputes over the support they are given at school.
From 2014, all pupils over the age of 16 will be able to make appeals to the tribunal. The same year will also see an investigation into whether this right should be extended to younger children. Both developments are part of a wider overhaul of SEN that has been in the pipeline for some time.
Lorraine Petersen, chief executive of SEN organisation Nasen, said she supported the possibility of this extension of pupil power.
"Sometimes parents think they know what's best for their children, but actually the children know better. I have no problem with this pilot scheme being introduced," she said. "But we've got to make sure the children are supported; they need an advocate and a voice."
In 2009, the previous Labour government proposed pilot schemes that would give children the right to take cases to SEN tribunals, citing concerns that some parents did not feel willing or confident enough to pursue an appeal themselves.
Children in Scotland already have the right to appeal to a tribunal over coordinated support plans, the country's equivalent of SEN statements, from the age of 16. They also have the right to appeal disability discrimination cases relating to school discrimination from the age of 12.
Brian Lamb, who conducted an inquiry into parental confidence in the SEN system for the Labour government, said the move would be beneficial for children who are not in the care of their parents.
"Just about everyone involved in this area of work would recommend it," he said. "There are practical reasons why it should be introduced: children in care have few other ways of being able to challenge decisions.
"This gives them a voice in the system that they haven't had before. The government now needs to decide at what age children are confident to fully have their own views about what their education should be like."
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "It's very rare for children to want to make a claim of this kind, but it is important for children's voices to be heard when providing for their needs.
"The government's aim with the SEN reforms is to make the system less adversarial. The idea of children going to tribunals does the opposite of that.
"I advocate listening to pupils carefully and doing everything to give them a voice," Mr Lightman added. "I would prefer them to have access to effective advocacy with an appropriate adult who can help them through the system."
A Department for Education spokesman said: "Thanks to our new laws, young people over the age of 16 will for the first time be able to make appeals about their special educational needs from 2014. We will also be running pilots on giving children the right to appeal.
"Children's appeal rights will be piloted from 2014 onwards, on top of the reforms already being piloted in the 20 path-finder areas. The age from which children will be able to appeal will depend on the outcome of the pilots - it's important we get this right."
See cover story, pages 26-30.