Parents fight for son's schooling

Fran Abrams reports on a case which aims to stop school 'piracy'
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The Independent Online
The parents of a brain-damaged boy are to take their county council to the High Court in a test case designed to stop schools from refusing to accept disabled pupils.

Peter and Wendy Crane say their 13-year-old son, Niki, should attend a mainstream school with a full- time helper. He spent almost six years at his local primary school and his parents say he made many friends despite his problems.

But teachers at the comprehensive school which his sister attends, Tarleton High School, near Preston in Lancashire, decided they did not want him. The county council agreed he should go to a special school instead.

The family appealed to the special needs tribunal set up by the government two years ago to deal with such cases, but they were told earlier this month that they had lost. Now, a national charity is hoping to raise pounds 20,000 to challenge the decision in court. A solicitor and a barrister are expected to donate their services.

John Wright, administrator of the Independent Panel of Special Education Advisers, which helps parents of children with special needs, hopes to win financial support for the case from educational trusts. He said: "Everyone is being swept up ... in a general mood of teacher militancy where they say, 'We decide who comes to our school.' It's piracy."

The Cranes say that the Government's code of practice supports their case. Local authorities must decide whether pupils can go to the school of their choice, the code says, and can reject them only if the provision they need is not available, if they would disrupt the education of other pupils, or if educating them there would be a waste of resources. Lancashire County Council maintains that Tarleton High School could not meet Niki's needs.

Mrs Crane said the special needs tribunal had refused to allow them to bring Niki to a hearing, and appeared to have ignored most of the evidence in his favour. "We had the strongest case," she said. "I wish they would have told us in the beginning that

Niki's supporters include John Kenworthy, a clinical psychologist, who describes the case as a "human rights issue", and Joe Whittaker, who trains teachers of children with special needs. They are setting up a trust fund for Niki and for Timothy Barnes, who has Downs Syndrome. It is hoped the fund will pay for the children to go to a mainstream independent school.

Jessica Seraga, secretary to the special needs tribunal, said the lay members of its panels were all experts on the subject. "They do listen very carefully to all the evidence," she said.

The council said in a statement: "The decision [to offer a place in a school for pupils with severe learning difficulties] was taken ... following consideration of representations made by Niki's parents, the advice of professionals involved in the assessment, and discussions with Tarleton High School."