Local councils spectacularly miss the point by blaming parents of kids with special needs

The report commissioned by the Local Government Association is a deeply cynical attempt to point an accusing finger at ‘pushy’ middle-class parents

James Moore
Sunday 13 March 2022 13:50 GMT
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<p>How on earth could encouraging parents to exercise the rights they have in law be classified as a problem?</p>

How on earth could encouraging parents to exercise the rights they have in law be classified as a problem?

The Local Government Association (LGA) is not the sort of organisation you would normally expect to produce something as offensive to parents as the video nasty scare of the 1980s.

But a read of the “independent” report it commissioned ahead of the government’s Special Educational Needs & Disability (SEND) review is likely to produce a similar reaction among long-suffering parents to back-to-back screenings of Driller Killer, Deep River Savages and Nightmares in a Damaged Brain. It really is that bad.

As readers of my previous columns will be aware, the government has belatedly recognised that the current system is beset with problems. It is adversarial and confrontational and regularly leaves parents facing debilitating David and Goliath battles with their local councils over Education Health & Care Plans (EHCPs) for their children.

These matter. They outline a child or teenager’s educational, health, and social care needs, and set out what is required to meet them up to the age of 25. And they are legally binding – particularly important when some British institutions look for any excuses not to do their jobs.

The number of appeals against local authority decisions with respect to these are rising. Moreover, parents are winning at an astonishing rate: more than 95 per cent per Ministry of Justice statistics. Score one for David and his slingshot.

You might think that an “independent” report would recognise what is glaringly obvious: losing at that rate demonstrates there is clearly something going badly wrong with local authorities’ decision making. You might also think that an “independent” report would further recognise that one condition – autism – accounts for close to half of them, and would underline that. You would be wrong.

Here’s what this report actually says: “The main factor behind the rise in the number and rate of appeals was not councils failing to meet their legal duties under the [2014 Children & Families] Act. The alternative explanation, which our research supports, is that the trends in disagreements and disputes are symptomatic of some fundamental imbalances in the SEND system.”

If the LGA, or its researchers, talked to families, they would find that there are very few who end up wading through the soup of the special needs system who wouldn’t say that it is in urgent need of reform.

However, they would also make clear that the way local authorities play this game needs to be a core part of a shake-up. The fact that they are getting it right in less than one in every 20 cases that reach tribunals makes that clear.

You’d have to work damn hard, and perform some impressive intellectual gymnastics to come to any other conclusion. Congratulations are due to the Isos Partnership, which conducted the research. The organisation – it describes itself as a company helping “the public sector solve problems and deliver effectively” – managed to find a way.

But wait, there’s more. The report also takes aim at what it sees as the “growth in unregulated organisations” which are  “encouraging and advising families to appeal”. This is another astonishingly wrong-headed statement. How on earth could encouraging parents to exercise the rights they have in law be classified as a problem?

That’s not even the best of it. The report states that its researchers covered “six local areas”. How very comprehensive. It goes on to assert that “most of the local authorities that we engaged with described that tribunal appeals were more likely to come from more affluent families and less likely to come from families from more deprived backgrounds”. The trouble is, as the report freely admits, there is no data to back this up. Nothing. Zero. Zip.

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The word “affluent” is nonetheless repeated four times in the report, with “middle-class” substituting on a couple of occasions, presumably to avoid repetition. Shall we call this out for what it is? A slur. A deeply cynical attempt to point an accusing finger at “pushy” middle-class parents and insinuate that they are trying to grab resources for their children that they don’t deserve.

Special Needs Jungle, an organisation that serves as a lifeline for desperate parents caught up in this nightmare, disputes the assertion. It deals with parents from a wide range of backgrounds and described the report as the local authorities saying “SEND failings are everyone’s fault but ours”. That serves as a pretty good summary.

IPSEA, which offers legally-based information, advice and support on SEND issues, is no less damning. It said that it told the researchers “very clearly that the SEND Tribunal does nothing more than apply the law, and appealing to the tribunal is often the only way that parents can make sure their children receive the special educational provision and wider support to which the law entitles them”.

Chief executive Ali Fiddy said: “This report completely misses the point that parents wouldn’t succeed at tribunal unless the evidence supported their case.” Just so. It is certainly true that the whole system is hobbled by a shortage of funds. That one is on central government, which has a nasty habit of dumping on local government.

But it is very hard to support local authorities in making the case for more cash when they sponsor work like this and direct so much of what they have towards fighting against parents in preference to helping children who desperately need support.

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