I recently attended a Partnership with Parents workshop in Surrey. The subject matters were an explanation of the new SEND rules given by one of the co-chairmen,an update on the Lamb inquiry and a presentation from the new Head of Surrey SEN, Debbie Johnson, asking 'Why do so many parents appeal against Surrey's 'Refusal to Assess' decisions'.
I was particularly looking forward to the latter, as although my younger son is statemented, my eldest son had recently been refused an assessment by Surrey. Ms Johnson was a very impressive speaker and was concerned about Surrey's position at the top of the charts for councils that have appeals registered against it. Much to the surprise of many in the room, she said that what should be happening is that if Surrey LEA was not going to defend its decision at the SEND Tribunal or thought it might give way if an appeal was launched, then it should actually not be refusing to assess in the first place. This was new! Someone with common sense! We all sat up a little straighter.
Ms Johnson said there was a lot to be done in Surrey and the feedback she was getting was that parents weren't being listened to, the process wasn't helpful and she was going to change that. She said the changes had to 'unbend the system' and make statements 'fit for purpose'. She would be disbanding panels that took parents around in circles and stop decisions being made that were not clear for either the parents not the authority.
It also appeared from figures she presented that, that in line with the large number of refusals to assess was an equally large number of pupils in Surrey diagnosed with ASD. Could these stats be related? Could it be that a lack of expertise within county provision in the field of high-functioning Autism and Asperger's, coupled with an increasing number of parents unwilling to go down without a fight is at the root of Surrey's large number of appeals? As Hong Kong Phooey would say .. 'Could be!'
Ms Johnson then described the difficulties faced by a highly intelligent child with Asperger's in a mainstream setting. She described my son to a tee. Afterwards, I spoke individually to her and she agreed to visit my son's case again.
And guess what? True to her word, this week I heard that the decision has been reversed, my son is now going to be assessed and I am so relieved that this part of the application is now resolved. There was also additional evidence I presented to them as part of the reconsideration and I am sure this made some difference; having been turned down I had sprung into action and prepared an fulsome appeal so I was able to send it to them to see if we could avoid the necessity of going to Tribunal and it seems this has had an effect. The lesson is, if you believe strongly in your case, DO NOT give up! Those who make the decisions are only human, just like you, errors can be made or minds can be changed if you provide a convincing enough case. But you have to put the effort in - don't ask and you don't get.
Back at the workshop, in spite of her 'new broom' presentation, Ms Johnson wasn't let entirely off the hook - many parents had serious grievances about the LEA's past practices, including one family who had been threatened with costs (illegally) if they went ahead with a Tribunal hearing the next day. To her credit, Ms Johnson tackled the issues head on and took the particular case mentioned extremely seriously. I might pity the hapless LEA employee who made the threat if it hadn't been such an unethical thing to do in the first place.
I left feeling vaguely cheered, though it remains to be seen how much difference Ms Johnson's new broom makes to the way Surrey carries out its practices. I, and parents like me, will be watching closely.
See the next post 'The SENDIST Tribunal' for information on that part of the workshop.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
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