Announcing two new Directors for Special Needs Jungle!

Today we bring you some exciting news about changes at Special Needs Jungle— we have appointed two new Directors!

2024 marks the 16th year for SNJ, which began in 2008 as a way to record how one parent, SNJ’s founder, Tania Tirraoro, set about securing a then-statement of SEN for her children. It was virtually the only publication writing regularly about the progress of the SEND reforms, starting with Brian Lamb’s 2009 SEN Inquiry. Since 2014, SNJ has been a non-profit social enterprise. Tania was joined as director in 2016 by Renata Blower, a fellow SEND parent who had been a columnist since 2013.

Who are the new SNJ directors?

We’re delighted to announce our two new Directors, Sharon Smith and Gillian Doherty. Both have been part of the central SNJ team for some time, lending their knowledge and expertise, along with Matt and Catriona.

Sharon and Gill will be names familiar to regular readers and the SEND community at large. Both are parents of young people with Down syndrome.

About Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith has been a parent advocate for over 15 years. She is a former chair of Hampshire’s Parent Carer Forum, and has known Tania since she also co-chaired the PCF in neighbouring Surrey (along with our mental health editor, Angela Kelly) Sharon is close to completing a SEND-related PhD, and works as an independent advisor and trainer for both the Down Syndrome Association and Contact charity.

Sharon is also a member of the SEN Policy Research Forum and chairs the Universal SEND Services Advisory Group, which Tania also sits on. She is married and has two children, including a young woman who has Down Syndome.

Sharon says:

“I was delighted to be invited to join the SNJ team formally and look forward to being able to contribute to the future direction of the organisation. As we all know, the SEND system is in crisis. Therefore, we now need, possibly more than ever, an independent critical parent-led voice to ask questions, to draw attention to problematic narratives emerging, and to amplify the concerns that parents/carers are raising. I have seen Special Needs Jungle grow from the very early days to the being a credible and important voice within the debates that need to take place about SEND. I am looking forward to drawing on my experience as a parent and researcher to help SNJ in the future.

Research that is being undertaken with families/carers of disabled pupils and those labelled as having Special Educational Needs needs to be informed by lived experience and also should not be kept within the confines of academic firewalls. Part of my role within SNJ will be to help bridge the two. Thank you to Tania and Renata for trusting me to be involved in the future of this brilliant organisation.” 

Read more about Sharon below

About Gill Doherty

Gill Doherty will be familiar to many parents as the founder of campaign group, SEND Action. In 2019, SEND Action took the government to court in a landmark judicial review over SEND funding, described by the judge as a “remarkable achievement.” Although they ultimately lost their case, it highlighted the parlous state of underfunding in the national SEND system.

Gill continued her work, most notably on social media, while living in Kenya, where her husband was working. Now settled in Somerset, Gill has been part of the SNJ team for some time. She has three sons, one of whom has Down syndrome. Alongside SNJ and SEND Crisis, Gill is a co-founder of SEND Community Alliance, and has represented SCA on the Special Education Consortium where we are a member. She is also our parent rep on the national SEND Oversight Board for the Change Programme.

Gill says:

“I first came across SNJ when we were already well over a year into our (supposedly max 20-week) EHC needs assessment and I am forever grateful to the person who passed on their details. I am in awe of their hard work and commitment over so many years. They give me hope that positive change is possible. It’s a real privilege to join the team." 

Read more about Gill below

Looking ahead to the future

Although already important team members, we’re so pleased that Gill and Sharon have joined us officially as directors. Being independent strategic advocates can be an uphill struggle, but our past work over many years has built vital relationships within the SEND sector and education media. Our persistence has brought vital roles on national advisory groups where we raise concerns and highlight issues affecting families of disabled children. It may seem like we are a large organisation, but we are most definitely grassroots, and we’re always listening to what you have to say.

Most of all, we know parents’ struggles because they are also our struggles. We’ve walked that long, arduous path to the SEND Tribunal, and some of us continue to do so. And we know what happens when support systems fail, leaving our children without the help they need to thrive. We are you.

If you have a story to tell us about your family experiences in SEND whether good or bad, some great practice to share, or to report unlawful or unethical practice, let us know using our contact form, email us, or use our secure email server. We are less likely to see social media DMs. Also please note, we don’t offer personal/individual support— you can download our extensive, free support signposting document here.

Please join us in welcoming Gill and Sharon! Click here to make a small donation to support our work, or click here to find out about advertising your SEND-related product or service.

More about Gill Doherty

Gill Doherty has dark blonde hair past her shoulders. She is white. tall and slender and in her forties. She is pictured in front of a bookcase.

I’m Gillian Doherty, co-founder of SEND Action and SEND Community Alliance and new director at SNJ. My professional background is in children’s publishing where I worked as a writer and editor for over 25 years before taking a step back due to family commitments and health issues. I have three sons. My youngest has Down syndrome. We have recently returned to the UK after spending most of the last ten years living in Africa.

Much of my time these days is spent campaigning on disabled children’s rights and trying to inform and influence local and national policies and strategies to improve the experiences of disabled children and young people and their families. I co-founded SEND Action to support and coordinate strategic group legal action on key SEND issues, including a judicial review against the Secretary of State for Education and Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding SEND funding. I represent SEND Community Alliance on the Special Education Consortium and on the SEND Strategic Oversight Board.

I am passionate about social justice and have a lifelong background in volunteering with various charities, including with disabled and disadvantaged children in the UK and internationally. I have a research background in international development, focusing on children and education. I am currently developing research partnerships to explore and evidence the experiences of disabled children and young people and their families, particularly concerning access to justice. 

At this critical time, I believe it's more important than ever that the many and varied voices of disabled children and young people and their families and carers are heard and that they are meaningfully involved in strategic decision-making, as genuine partners.

More about Sharon Smith

Sharon Smith has a daughter who has Down syndrome, and as a result has been engaged in the SEND system for over 15 years as a parent carer. During this time, through both voluntary and paid roles, she has met hundreds of other parents who have struggled – and continue to struggle - to get suitable support or educational placements for their children. This provides Sharon with the ongoing motivation to do her bit to contribute to efforts towards meaningful change for disabled children and their families.

After a short period as a frustrated Chair of a Parent Carer Forum, and not knowing what to move on to next, Sharon followed her husband’s suggestion to ‘do a short course’. However, not one to do things by halves, this led to Sharon undertaking a degree course, followed by a Masters degree, and subsequently she designed a PhD research inquiry related to the educational inclusion of disabled children. The thesis is in the final stages of production and who knows what the future will hold… 

Sharon writes for Special Needs Jungle in a personal capacity, and all views expressed are her own.

Sharon Smith has shoulder length light brown hair and a dark flowered shirt. She is smiling

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