SOS!SEN on England’s special needs reforms: The Good, The Bad, The Unchanged

Way back in 2011, I wrote an article about a small SEN legal charity, SOS!SEN, that provides an advisory service to parents trying to ger the right educational support for their children

The tour de force behind SOS!SEN is, or rather was, Marion Strudwick, a former head teacher whose cut-glass vowels has, for the past 13 years, sliced fear through the hearts of many a local authority representative at the SENDIST Tribunal as she represented parents refused assessments or statements or the placement the believed their child needed.

Marion has recently retired and has kindly written this article for Special Needs Jungle looking back at her time with SOS!SEN and her hopes for the future.

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The Good, The Bad and The Unchanged in SEN

After almost 14 years of Asked after nearly 14 years since we started just what changes we have noted, I would summarise them as:

The Good

This has been the enormous increase in the number of parents willing and empowered to fight for the education rights of their children, and with the knowledge that it is hard evidence and careful conduct of their case that produces the necessary result. Parents who, 10 years ago, would not have sought advice are now doing so from a range of helplines, support groups and advice centres. They are informed, more sceptical of the assurances of local authorities and forensic in the way they approach their battles and less willing to accept watered down provision.

We have seen some greater awareness amongst teachers in mainstream schools of the nature and subtleties of some special needs and an increasing recognition that not everything can be dismissed as a parenting problem. The introduction of the Children and Families Act 2014 is, to some extent, to be welcomed because it does allow for more joined up assessment of Educational, Health and Social Care needs.

Help has sprung up from so many organisations and the days when even for simple cases success could be achieved only via specialist lawyers are over. SOS!SEN with its 5 advice centres a month, helpline and hands on workshops has in 14 years grown from one desk in my front room to a national charity still dependent very largely on volunteers but guided by a legal expert. We responded to the demands of the situation.

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The Bad

Despite the positives, the negatives increase. The new Act is disappointing in that the EHCPs have different formats for each LA, their wording is often patronising and the authorities either through ignorance or design are largely producing Plans that are as vague, sparse in content, and inaccurate as are many of the remaining statements. Furthermore, there is no appeal to the SEND Tribunal on Health and Social Care matters unless these are firmly included under Parts B and F (Education). The requirement that Mediation at least be shown to have been considered is cumbersome and pointless. Outcomes in Part E cannot be appealed to SENDIST and that is plain ridiculous.

Tribunal appeals are undoubtedly becoming more complex and difficult and panels inconsistent in their findings. Invaluable as SENDIST is, the general view from the experts is that success depends largely on the extent to which panel members really are able to understand the educational evidence and issues before them. Ten years ago Tribunal was clearly evidence based and the views of the expert witnesses respected. Nowadays, too many heads of schools or SENCo believe they must do as the LAs direct and oppose parental appeals.

"Unchanged above all is the parental will to become empowered and fight. Long may it continue and long may independent organisations exist to help."
Worry about career and school funding prospects play an important part. The days of being there for the child are in large part over. Perhaps shortage of funds are to be blamed but in a desperate bid to save money, no matter how needy the child, many LAs seek methods of representation that at the best can be described as legally confusing and at the worst plain vile. There seems no shortage of lawyers prepared to deny children’s rights to make a quick buck through bullying and delaying tactics rather than evidence. Sadly SENDIST staff and some judges have still not yet entirely dealt with this approach although there are some indications that the net is closing.

The Unchanged

Well it’s incompetent officers failing to meet legal deadlines; designed delays to keep provision off the scene; frequent staff turnover so no one knows what has gone before; promises that everything is really fine and, “We’ll get that sorted,” They don’t. Surrey, I believe, must still hold the record for parental complaints going unanswered and pompous Tribunal process confusion.

Almost certainly it’s still and patronisingly, “Mum reports” or “Mum thinks” (Would they call the professionals “Mate” or “Matey”?) It’s still contacting parents by phone so there is not a trace of what is said (ask for it by email so you have a paper trail). It’s still the “Weasel Words” such as:

“Oh yes, O.T. comes under Health so you don’t need it under Education.” (You do or you won’t get it.)

"You are really lucky to be getting all this you know. You won’t get it in another authority.” (You might or might not but anyway it won’t be enough.)

“Well there just isn’t the money you know.” (Their problem and not yours.)

Oh, and there’s so much more, BUT unchanged above all is the parental will to become empowered and fight. Long may it continue and long may independent organisations exist to help.

I am proud that SOS!SEN has helped so many children to climb a mountain and proud of parents to fight for their children’s rights. SOS!SEN will continue to empower parents, led by Eleanor Wright - SEN Lawyer, as our new co-ordinator.

Marion Strudwick, 2015

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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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