How to help our children: 10 top tips from parents for SEND Case Officers

Recently, I wrote an article based on positive things schools/teachers had done to help your child, based on parental contributions on our Facebook group, SNJ, let’s Talk about SEND.

I was contacted by an LA SEND officer, who asked if I would ask a similar – but perhaps more difficult  -- question, with the idea again being to highlight and share good practice. The question was:

“Name one (or even more than one) thing a SEND officer has done that’s made a positive difference to your or your child’s experience”

I was anticipating a slew of negative responses, given the many horror stories we hear, and indeed some commented, “Sadly I can’t contribute to this one”  “Scratching my head for an answer tbh”. Or with dark humour, “Left the team?”

Or a good & bad, such as “Our original SEND officer stayed with us to fight for an EHCP to ensure needs were met. That was eight years ago. Unfortunately, [because of] the toxic nature of our local authority SEND department and the way they treat each other, I unfortunately can't provide an updated [comment].”

However, I am happy to say we did have some really helpful comments from parents which, along with my own comments, I’ve turned into one of our Top Tips.

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1. Timely communication

SEN case officers usually have large case loads with applications at various stages. It is not a role for the faint-hearted that's for sure. That said, it should never be forgotten that at the heart is a child with unmet needs. Their parents are likely to be anxious about the outcome of their application so one of the most important things is to ensure that calls are answered promptly, messages are passed on and inquiries and emails are responded to. This is KEY. If departments are having problems with this, then they would be well served to hire an efficient admin who can triage contacts, ensuring they are followed up, who isn't a case officer and so doesn't have a caseload of their own.

“We've had two great [case officers] in the past. The first one let me write the plan, she then took it forward to be agreed. The second was excellent with communication and by her own admission, was at the mercy of those higher up in terms of decision making. I respected her honesty and swift updates.”

2. Empathy

Empathy is not the same as sympathy. A good exercise is to imagine yourself in a parents' shoes. How would you like to be treated? Parents told us:

“My SEND officer stayed during my child’s Educational Psychology appointment advocating for him, to ensure he had an education during his inpatient stay. Her son was poorly and she arranged child care and stayed with us. To this day I’m so grateful for that. The meeting was five hours long.”

“Our final caseworker so far, got tearful when she shared the news that my daughter will be going to an independent specialist school for her secondary education. We were in appeal, with no named school, specialist type identified, and a good case for the school. She had been quite aloof to that point, but her emotion showed me she is human and must care.”  

This is not to say this parent wants a case officer who is overly emotional, but just a hint of empathy can make a huge difference.

3. Collaboration

A big part of the "new" system was to put the family at the heart and for parents to be involved from early on. This thread runs right the way through from SEN Support and includes the EHC Needs Assessment. Unfortunately among the process and the politics, this aspect of the reforms has been left behind far too often.

While keeping parents updated every week will probably be a practical impossibility, it is important that you work together so that by the time you are putting a draft plan together, their child is not just a two-dimensional character. If you can't meet them in person, find out what is important to them and what makes them who they are.

Parents said:

“Going through the working document together and making the changes we requested when we pointed out where the evidence was. Allowing my child to have clicker when we requested it even though it was specified in a report as it was the right thing for them.”

“Attended an annual review meeting in person.”

“Our caseworker forced the school to retrospectively document every last thing they had done for my daughter, who by then was Yr3. The school had needed to do lots for her, but they'd not documented it, so my parental application for EHCP was initially turned down. I emailed setting out the legal tests, and she met with me and school and told them she wanted it documented by x date. A week later the decision was overturned and we got the EHC Needs Assessment”.

4. Clarity and accuracy 

Use clear language, spell check, make sure the right child’s name is on the paperwork – these all sound basic, but countless parents have experienced this as an issue.

And remember - quantify and specify provision so it is a legally compliant, useful document. You need training to do this (see next section)

“For my son's final EHC plan, the EHCP officer wrote clearly, and with correct grammar and followed the evidence. He was polite and didn't resort to cut and paste. I sent one lot of revisions and he updated them quickly and responded where he had omitted provision etc in section F and need in section B. I had to nudge him to contact the social worker who had recently carried out an assessment, but after that, he was quick to absorb the evidence and update the draft plan. He then left to train to be a lawyer. He was part of a team of officers hired for just two years to prepare and process plans. Responsive and efficient”

Parent

“[The case officer] wrote a simplified, accurate, and specific plan that was easy to understand for the family, for the school and to plan for. By recognising significant trauma, they promptly organised for a transition to a placement that could manage higher needs, had conversations with my 18+ young person to connect and understand him, also gave advice too. Allowed forward thinking for the EOTAS (Education Other Than At School) planning and battled with their panels to create a do-able plan of support to make up for the years of no support.”

Parent

5. Knowledge

Know the law. IPSEA has case officer training. Nasen also has lots of free training that may help you. If you are not offered training by your LA, ask for it, as an essential part of knowing how to carry out your job. Understand that policy doesn’t trump the law – in other words, just because it’s in the LA’s SEND policy document, if it is contrary to legislation, the law wins.

Parent: “I’m pretty sure I can thank her for the six years my son has spent in an independent specialist- no tribunal.“ 

Parent: “Specified and quantified EVERYTHING in the plan, without being asked.”

Additionally don’t be tempted to tell a parent something that you don’t know to be factually and legally accurate. If you don’t know the answer, admit it, find out and follow up. 

Be ready to question colleagues who say things that are not accurate or who speak disrespectfully about parents. Not challenging slurs or insults about families means you are complicit, and it adds to a toxic culture where parents become “the enemy”.  

Check out our SEND Flow charts as well - you are welcome to share them with parents and colleagues.

6. Caring about a child’s needs

The SEND case officer's role is multi-faceted and no one would claim it's an easy one. But again, it's not about the LA, it's not even about the parent and how you feel about them. It's about a vulnerable child who may not even have a school place. For some children school will never be the best place but they still need an education. Imagine if that was your child!

Parent: “We recently came across an agency case officer who helped us to get EOTAS (Education Other Than At School – only found in an EHCP) into [my child’s] EHCP and get a full year’s funding sorted. Very rare thing in my LA.”

Parent: “Fought for him to go to an independent out of county school. Our SEND officer was amazing.”

“Started talking and writing about residential places being one of few potential options. As so few [placements] could meet needs, this would have been a viable option for the LA to consider...but it also gave a comparison of cost for a well-resourced package from home that would enshrine the right to a family life, which for us is essential, versus the cost of residential. They also asked our clinical psychologist to develop a programme specification that would work for our child. 

Parent

Parent: “When this SEND officer was relocated to another area, they talked about handing over...and I unexpectedly burst out crying. It took so long to get where we are…and finally having someone on board who did understand …what we are trying to achieve. I just was so worried about another change with another person who may not get it and be so supportive, so they stayed with us on this case.”

7.  Good SEND case officers listen 

Developing good relationships matters. You’re not expected to be a counsellor, but listening and reflecting what is being said can be very helpful. If you’re not sure what a parent means, ask them to clarify. Some parents have SEND (diagnosed or not) themselves, so they may find expressing themselves difficult and they may find this frustrating. Ask them their preferred way for communication.

As you will see below, being heard is one of the most important things and it costs the LA nothing.

“Being on the end of the phone whilst I sobbed…! She was great with me and updated the plan to the best of her ability. I am still having to appeal as the LA refused reports by Education Psychology and Speech and Language Therapy, but she did her utmost to get the plan to a standard where my son could access his preferred Post-16 provision. If only all SEND Officers were like her!” 

Parent

Parent: “I spoke to the LA case manager about the list of possible suitable special schools she recently sent. When I explained that I'd like one of them removed because they are an ABA school, she said fine, no problem. I'll remove it. Just like that. I was listened to. Felt amazing!”

“About three years ago a service manager finally listened to my autistic child’s report of abuse in school by school staff, already recorded by the school and Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO). My child was then given home tutors and the EHCP was attended to.”

Parent

Parent: “My SEND officer has been so helpful. But, more often than not she has calmed me down over a few wobbles and listened before offering advice. She has kept my daughter on her workload too.”

Parent: “Listening, talking to the young person, making the plan simple, bullet pointed and easy to understand whilst being specific on needs and support. Especially as the support is mostly the little bits that make the big difference.”

“We’ve just had a very positive EHCP annual review. The SEND officer, listened, was empathetic and openly co-operative. Clearly this is potentially very helpful. In 15 years, this has happened once before, after a complaint. I’m still pinching myself...did it really happen?”

Parent

8. Be Kind

We’ve all heard that kindness costs nothing which, considering the funding situation, is just as well. But thinking about the child first can help see through to the heart of the issue:

Parent: “One SEND case officer came out to our home for a meeting and when she met my son she said “I hope you know that none of this is your fault. You are struggling with school because it isn’t right for you “

“One is really supportive of [Education Other Than At School] EOTAS . She agreed to fund my son’s plans to be a professional climber. She said she can’t wait for him to be in the Olympics and she will be able to say that he is one of the young people she helped! “  [for accuracy, please note it isn’t the case officer themselves that approves funding]

Parent

9. Send the draft plan electronically too

Sending the draft plan via email as an electronic version in Word should be automatic in 2021, but often, it is a point of (unnecessary) contention.

Don’t say it can’t be done- it can, and is, done. There is nothing in law that prevents this and it makes going through the plan much easier for families. It is also more accessible for parents who may have problems reading print. 

If you’re worried about security, send it via WhatsApp or password protect it and give the password separately. 

“We had one SEND case officer that gave us the electronic copy and let us re-write the draft plan. We do this as standard now but had refusal before this. I have met a few [case officers] whose hearts seem to be in the right place but are constrained by budgets and rules imposed on them.”

Parent

10. Little things mean a lot

A lot of the things that have been mentioned seem like little, obvious things. And yet these are the touches that make the difference; the kind gesture that can turn a parent’s bad day around – and they are remembered.

A SEND caseworker once apologised to me for making an error the same day I told them. I've lost count of the case workers we've had and the unlawful actions taken and errors made by them. No-one else has ever admitted fault or apologised.  I didn't have to chase for weeks or make a formal complaint and no-one was "sorry if I felt" there was an error. They were sorry they got it wrong and they fixed it. “

Parent

Parent: “I mean, not willingly, but I did manage to arrange for one to meet my daughter so that they could actually understand more about what she was like. I think that helped focus” 

This parent, below, wasn't lucky with her case officer, but did find help elsewhere that a SEND Case Officer could have done:

“Sadly the SEND officer was dreadful- damaging even. The MASSH worker however signposted to me by a hospital OT, was incredible. Took a personal interest, called when she said she would, found out stuff she didn’t know, did what she said she would do and signposted us to services, professionals and specialists we were unaware of. Sounds basic and ‘to be expected’ practice but when these little things don’t happen, it can be a significant barrier to knowing about accessing services and provision. “

Parent

Parent: “One suggested that I name the secondary school early so that it could go through the panel system early. Meant I got the special school I wanted.“

Parents v budgets

You may feel it’s a fine line, being supportive and also feeling under pressure from managers about budgets. But the latter should not preclude the former. 

Remember that it isn’t just the child who is vulnerable – many parents have already been through the trauma of a medical diagnosis for their child, long waits for treatment, difficulties with school, exclusion, and lack of support. And, as mentioned above, they may have their own needs.

An interesting take on a “broken” system

One commenter, an LA staff member it seems, said:

“SEND case officers are amazing people who are working their socks off in the most challenging of circumstances. It's not their fault that the system is broken. Many have significant lived experiences themselves and are motivated to get the best outcomes for the children and young people with whom they support. I can't tell you what a difference the occasional compliment makes rather than the sea of negativity which is more about systems than people. SEN caseworkers are the most undervalued workforce and deserve better.”

While obviously wanting to stick up for their team, I think this comment misses some things.

Firstly, parents know when they have been well-supported and as you can see from the comments, they're hugely grateful.

Secondly, I do not believe parents' poor experiences of the system are because it is “broken”. As I’ve said before, systems do not exist on their own. 

The negative comments I read do not tend to be system-related but are about things that do not need to happen. These include getting a child’s name wrong, mis-spellings, text within the document about another child, not returning phone calls, giving incorrect information about the law. These are not systemic issues, they are training issues that can be solved. 

Systems are run by people. Every single individual, whatever their role, has the power to behave in a way that fosters wellbeing

Training matters

If someone finds working with often distressed parents too hard to manage, they should seek training or consider another job. I freely admit that I would be emotionally overwhelmed within the week (or maybe the day), which perhaps is why some feel they have to build a protective “wall” around themselves.

If you don’t feel you have the skills to cope, advocate for yourself and your colleagues by asking for managing tricky situations training, or working with parents training (we offer this), and definitely mental health support systems for yourself. 

It is also an underpaid role at the “coal-face” levels, just like so many NHS roles are. But treating those they support with compassion, dignity, and care should always be part of the job spec. Everyone knows a SEND case officer is not simply an admin role and should never be advertised as such; this does a disservice to both the case officer and those they help. It is a crucial, sensitive, and difficult role that can be emotionally draining, especially when also handling a high caseload. If it is undervalued, it is undervalued by the council itself, never by parents. 

A knowledgeable, empathetic, case officer can mean the difference between a positive experience for a family and one that provokes unnecessary stress, prolonged anger and upset. One parent wrote that his experience, “Provoked the fight and anger in me and the sense of injustice that instilled my drive to be absolutely ruthless with my dealings with them to get the best for me child.”

“Imagine being a parent with a child with special needs; it's not the child having special needs that's the problem, it's getting the support to help the child which is far worse and actually horrendous. I'm due to register my sixth appeal for Post 16… because following Year 11 Annual Review the SEN officer told me my son's plan had been stuck with admin, so finalised it disregarding the Year 11 annual review. This is transition to adulthood! If I didn't feel otherwise I'd say, "poor thing they had so many plans to finalise they didn't get to mine, but this doesn't help my son does it? Over 10 years I haven't met one that has helped and this is the "reality" of having a child with SEN. No-one has ever cared about him.

Parent

If it is undervalued, it is undervalued by the council itself, never by parents. 

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How can SEND case officers help the “quiet” parents?

Most of this article has featured parents who are engaged - have been forced to be engaged - with getting their child the help they are entitled to. I’m sure that at the end of a phone, they can be annoying, demanding, abrupt, stressed that can erupt into shouting or tears. I've been that parent myself. We just want someone who understands our situation; that we would rather be doing just about anything else, but we have no choice. It drives us crazy that we must use the energy we need for our child(ren) on trying to get the education that they are legally entitled to. It is unjust and unfair. A good SEND case officer, who is honest, communicative, and knowledgeable is, quite literally, worth their weight in gold.

However, most parents are not in this “engaged” category –none are, to start with. SNJ was started out of concern for the children of those families who are not able to self-advocate. The ones who are told, “your child won’t qualify for an EHCP”, and they don’t argue, because they trust what they’re being told. The ones who don’t chase an application up because they don’t want to be a bother or they think it’s the school’s job. The ones who don’t provide any evidence from professionals their child has seen, because they didn’t know who to approach to get their child seen in the first place. The ones whose child has been excluded because of undiagnosed SEND and, likely, unless they get to a good Alternative Provision (AP), may never be referred for an assessment. 

If children like this do ever get to the stage of being assessed, don’t mistake a lack of parental engagement for a lack of interest. Don’t think it’s okay to send a refusal to assess letter and offer no other avenue to support. Don’t take it as an easy win because they don’t understand how to appeal or don’t feel empowered to do so. Every child matters, no matter how capable their parents are of navigating the system.

Please be proactive, please create a list of local services that can help such as SENDIAS, local support groups, advocacy services, the Local Offer website and so on, that can support them. Your job is not to be a social worker, but making it a practice to offer this to parents can make a huge difference to their children – and ultimately, that’s who we are all supposed to be supporting. 

What other tips would you offer?

Also read:


  • SEND Community Alliance Join us
  • Neurodiversity Celebration Week
  • Books SNJ recommends
  • SNJ FLOW CHARTS

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Tania Tirraoro
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