The parallels between the subpostmasters scandal and the institutional gaslighting aimed at SEND parent carers

with Fiona Castle, SEND parent and campaigner

Institutional gaslighting, lies, infliction of trauma and mental health breakdown… these are all behaviours that allowed the subpostmaster scandal to develop and persist for two decades. And although this has now been condemned, the damage done to those involved cannot be fixed with compensation or apologies. The damage ruined, and ended, lives.

But why are we writing about that here on a SEND website? If you’re a parent of a disabled child who’s been through the wringer of a battle or two to get the right SEND provision, you will know why— because the same behaviours are still being meted out on a daily basis to families asking for support, yet no one in power cares and it’s hard to imagine anyone will ever act to end it.

The similarities struck SEND parent and campaigner Fiona Castle and she has written this thoughtful article for us. What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments and don’t forget to share on your social channels!

Mr Bates Versus the Post Office and the parallels to the SEND Crisis by Fiona Castle

Many of you will have watched the January 2024, ITV drama Mr Bates versus the Post Office, based on the real-life gross miscarriage of justice of the prosecution of almost 1000 subpostmasters accused of fraud, mismanagement and theft. 236 were imprisoned and more had assets seized. As a result, hundreds lost jobs, reputations, financial security, and, in some cases, their lives to suicide.

A decade later, though far too late, the real culprit was unveiled — a botched introduction of a computer system that created financial irregularities. Former postmaster, Alan Bates, and 555 subpostmasters successfully argued at the High Court that previous evidence was legally unsafe. In the years since, many convictions have been overturned and others have been called into question.

The ITV drama led to an outpouring of outrage at the Post Office’s behaviour and public sympathy for the affected subpostmasters. Such was the outcry the Prime Minister was forced to announce both swift action to exonerate those affected and a £1 billion compensation fund.

But what does this have to do with SEND?

As I watched Mr Bates versus the Post Office, as well as feeling disbelief at this miscarriage of justice along with sympathy and outrage for those who have had their lives irrevocably changed, I also felt a strong sense of familiarity. So much of what appeared on screen reminded me of what happens in the lives of families with a child with SEND every day.

My 12-year-old son was diagnosed as autistic when he was four and several years later, he was also diagnosed with dyscalculia. While my son now has an EHCP and is happily settled in a secondary, specialist provision, the years between diagnosis to provision were turbulent and traumatic. Now my son’s needs are being met, I spend a considerable amount of time helping other families fight for support for their SEND children, and I see the same issues come up time and again. So, without wishing to detract from the subpostmasters’ plight, I want to highlight how their experiences mirror those of SEND families, and how the consequences are just as profound and far-reaching.

Mirrors and gaslighting

The ITV drama opens with the stories of several subpostmasters experiencing issues with the Horizon computer system and ringing the helpline, only to be told that the computer system was robust and that no one else was having issues. This was simply not true, but the helpline managed to gaslight and shame the subpostmasters into believing the issues with accounting were their fault.

I don’t think I have ever met a SEND parent who hasn’t experienced this kind of institutional gaslighting at least once in their journey. I have had local authority (LA) caseworkers tell me that my LA, “doesn’t quantify and specify EHCPs”. Several teachers in my son’s mainstream primary school, told me “he wasn’t the worst in the class”, intimating I would be “stealing” support from “more needy” children if I insisted he was helped.

One SENCO told me I wasn’t allowed to pay for a private educational psychologist to assess my child and, even if I did, he still wouldn’t get an EHC Needs Assessment. This was compounded by the headteacher, who when the educational psychologist recommended 1:1 support for my son, asked me if I had “paid her to write that in the report”.

I even had a moderator from the mediation service tell me the SEND tribunal was ‘unlikely’ to overturn the LA’s decision not to carry out a needs assessment because the “school hadn’t proved that they were spending at least £6,000 a year” on my son. And this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the misinformation, gaslighting and outright lying I have experienced. I know I’m not alone. When helping parents now, the biggest hurdle I have to overcome with them is not usually that their child has difficulties or will need support, it is that professionals will lie to them about the support available and the child’s legal entitlement to it. This leads to such confusion that many parents simply give up; an outcome I fully believe LAs and schools rely upon to reduce the financial “burden” of SEND. 

Overwhelming shame

It also leads to feelings of shame when parents are told their child’s behaviours are from poor parenting, or the difficulties they report are “not seen in school”. The implication is, it’s your fault. In the early days of my fight, before I knew better, I didn’t even tell friends and family about the issues we were having with my son, fearing both judgement and blame. I held my older neurotypical child out as “proof” that I wasn’t a bad parent, which echoes the cries of the subpostmasters who, before the introduction of the Horizon system, had never had problems with accounting and had been trusted to run their businesses.

Some of the subpostmasters voluntarily asked for the Post Office auditors to come in, mistakenly believing they would help them resolve the issues. Instead, it led to the immediate closure of branches and evidence-gathering for prosecution. This compares strongly with parents who, desperate for support, have reached out to support professionals only to be offered non-specific parenting courses or threatened with visits from social services or the school truancy officer if issues are not immediately resolved. SNJ has previously written about the rise in unfounded allegations of FII (Fabricated or Induced Illness), especially amongst parents of SEND children:

Long-lasting consequences

The long-term consequences for subpostmasters accused of financial misconduct were far-reaching. This is echoed by families struggling to access support for their child with SEND. Parents of SEND children experience higher levels of depression and anxiety than parents of typically developing children. The trauma can be long-term, with PTSD UK reporting, caregivers of children with complex medical conditions face a four-fold increase in risk for PTSD compared to the general population”.

Likewise, the strain is not just emotional but financial. In October 2022, Family Fund estimated the financial cost of raising a disabled child to be three times higher than a non-disabled child.

For me, a lot of this emotional and financial strain was directly caused by the fight for support and the lack of adequately funded provision. I had a nervous breakdown during the EHCP and subsequent appeals processes. The stress led to problems in my personal relationships. I’ve also had to abandon any aspirations I had to progress in my career. Although I have recovered significantly and the acute phase of our EHCP journey is behind us, I don’t think I will ever be the same again. My experience of dealing with teachers, SENCOs and LAs has left me with lasting trust issues.

I know I’m not alone. In a village hall scene in Mr Bates versus the Post Office, the characters discuss their experiences with palpable grief, disbelief and anger. In Autumn 2019, OFSTED and CQC inspectors held a meeting for parents in Bristol to gather feedback on the city’s SEND provision. It was one of the most traumatic meetings I have ever been to. Family after family discussed the lack of support from education and health services; they discussed the impact of the stress, resulting in job losses and family breakdowns. A man in his mid-50s cried when discussing the years of neglect his child had experienced at the hands of professionals in services responsible for caring for them. Every family’s story was different, but they were also all the same. They’d been let down and any support they or their children did get, they’d had to fight hard to get.

Accountability failings

Possibly one of the most distasteful elements about what happened to the subpostmasters is that the evidence suggests those in power knew what was going on and refused to act or take responsibility. This correlates very strongly with what is happening in the SEND community in the UK, regarding access to education, health and other support services. While in many respects the relevant SEND legislation is aspirational and robust, its implementation was chronically underfunded and accountability for those who flout the law is in very short supply.

In 2021-22, the first tier SEND tribunal service (SENDIST) found in the favour of families (overturned the decisions of LAs) in over 96% of cases, a figure that increased to 98% in 2023. The tribunal service is experiencing a year-on-year increase in appeals, and yet LAs continue to flout the law surrounding SEND and at best misinform, at worst lie to parents. You can read about this further here:

Not an isolated occurrence

This isn’t just the minority of LAs either; the vast majority are failing not just the SEND families under their care, but also schools by inadequately resourcing them. But the refusal to take responsibility doesn’t just stop with LAs. Central Government is failing in its duty of care, with it being estimated that the shortfall in High Needs Block funding supplied by the Government per year is now around the £1.5 billion mark.

Parents are spending time, money and resources fighting unlawful decisions made by LAs which, while chronically underfunded by central government, knowingly break the law. And who is held accountable for this? No one. The SENDIST service does not have the power to force LAs to pay the legal costs of families who successfully overturn their decisions. Nor can it stop LAs repeating the same poor decision-making again and again. Just like the Post Office scandal, those in power know that SEND provision is in crisis and yet are unwilling or unable to stop it.

Many families start their journey into the world of SEND provision with high hopes that what matters most to everyone is the needs of the child. Hope that LAs know best and will always follow the law. Hope that the system is designed to believe parents and support them, rather than gaslight them and make them feel that they are somehow expecting too much and being unreasonable. In Mr Bates and the Post Office, so many of the subpostmasters seemed to believe that nothing bad would happen to them because they hadn’t done anything wrong. That someone would see the truth and would help them. That those in power would show respect for the law and basic morality, and help them. The realisation that this just wasn’t the case must have been as devastating for them as it is for SEND families, all across the country, every day of the year.

About Fiona Castle

Fiona Castle

Fiona Castle is a part-time civil servant who lives in Bristol with her husband and two sons.

She is a member of the campaigning groups: Bristol SEND Justice, the SEND National Movement and Assess for Autism. 

Fiona has written for SNJ before: Restricting Autism Assessment? Not On Our Watch, Say Bristol Parents, As They Launch Legal Action

Also read:

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  1. mckennadeirdre

    Many thanks to Fiona Castle for writing this article, and I wish parent/carers in Bristol every success with their joint legal action. Fiona illustrates that the SEND Crisis is not simply financial; it is a crisis of moral probity. There are countless cases where counties have spent more time, money and energy obstructing SEND Provision than it would take to deliver it, even when it involves minimal amounts of funding. I took part in the APPG parliamentary review of CP (which can also be a “hidden disability”, along with all the leading SEND charities) to illustrate this point, and all my evidence of was accepted: including routine breaches of DPA and re-victimisation through moral trauma that only serves to shift mounting costs to society. The National OFSTED Report reveals that the nation has managed to produce a whole generation of public servants who “lack impartiality”, an understatement given the prevalence of stonewalling and gaslighting inflicted and endured, but worrying enough in itself. I am left wondering if there is a inherent form of “asset leakage” in SEND Services., and who really gets to profit from this adversarial system? I would be very grateful if SNJ has done research into this area. and to anyone who may share their insights. Wishing you all hope, strength and courage. Deirdre McKenna

  2. clairewalshdr

    So who’s going to commission the playwright, and which actors would we see playing the leading roles? I’m sure ITV or Channel 4 would commission it.

    Seriously though, thanks for the article, Gaslighting has become the norm for many, but we know these microagressive acts are like death from a thousand cuts.

  3. David Newton

    The parallels with the post office scandal were not lost on me either, having experienced lies, obstruction, obscufation, gaslighting, drift and delay, false narratives, passive aggressive behaviours, and ultimately misused safeguarding procedures in attempts to stop me seeking provisions that were already identified at tribunal, and for raising serious safeguarding concerns of my own. The harm to health and loss of income has been enormous. And it is a corrupt web that stretches across services and up the management ladder. Senior managers turn a blind eye.

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