Voices: Why won’t local authorities admit mistakes over kids with special needs?

·4-min read
They refuse to admit that their decision making is flawed (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
They refuse to admit that their decision making is flawed (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Over 90 per cent of UK tribunals currently back parents of kids with special educational needs and/or disabilities, when a dispute ends up there. Those disputes are usually with local councils over the kind of special provisions the council should make for them.

Faced with such statistics, the government seems to think they’re run by witches. Witches, I tell you. That’s the only explanation possible. How could authorities otherwise be losing 96 per cent of the cases?

So, I’m exaggerating there. Mark Walker, the Special Educational Needs & Disabilities (SEND) director for Kent County Council, recently told Kent Online: “We would probably say that the tribunal system itself is something that needs to be looked at because you cannot have a tribunal system where most tribunal’s results come down on the side of parents, that’s a bit like the Japanese legal system.”

That sounds a little more measured. But it still created a ripple of anger on SEND Twitter because it amounts to much the same thing: We’re losing so the SEND tribunals must be getting it wrong. Or it’s the system.

The odd comparison to Japan’s justice system was there, I guess, because it convicts roughly 99 per cent of those brought to trial. Except that prosecutors only bring about half the cases they get before a judge, and have other hurdles to clear too. Japan is not North Korea.

Walker’s approach is similar to that taken by the Local Government Association and other local authorities in the run up to the government’s ongoing review of the broken SEND system.

Hammering away at tribunals helps divert attention from the real question we should be asking: Why are councils are losing? Why are these large organisations with lawyers and full time staffs, falling on their faces when confronted with exhausted SEND Parents. Who bring these cases in addition to performing the challenging and exhausting job of caring for their SEND child or children, as well as running their homes, going to work, and trying to find time for their other children.

Really, it’s a bit like asking a featherweight to get into the ring with Tyson Fury after first completing an Olympic marathon. If Fury repeatedly got knocked out by that featherweight, he’d fire his trainer and ask himself what he was doing wrong.

But local authorities appear unwilling to engage in any self reflection at all. They refuse to admit that their decision making is flawed and that the reason they lose is because they are failing to provide parents with what they are legally entitled to. Instead they take a leaf out of Boris Johnson’s book and engage in distraction.

Attacking the tribunal system not working? Try lobbing a few bricks at the parents.

Walker went down that route in the Kent Online piece. Parents in Kent are believing a “myth’”, spread on social media, that “if you get an EHCP you get what you want”, even if the child’s needs are being met in mainstream education, he told the outlet.

Wait, what? Believe you me, all of us who find ourselves thrown to the bottom of a local authority dug pit will be aware that an EHCP is not a panacea.

But what these documents do is to spell out a child’s needs and the support they are entitled to. Which is why they matter. Without them, as we have found out to our cost, it can sometimes feel like being lost on Dartmoor in the middle of winter with only a Pokemon T-shirt and a pair of cut off jeans for protection.

Walker said Kent parents had lost faith in mainstream schools while bemoaning the cost of funding specialist provision, and transport to it.

Well, ok, why don’t we look at the funding issues which have created the current imbroglio. Together.

We parents are aware of the role central government has played in this, with the starvation rations it doles out out to local government and with its creation of an increasingly diktat driven education system that sometimes abandons children who play the roll of square pegs in round holes.

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Some schools try very hard, even in the face of this, but the sad fact is that they are disincentivized to do so.

There is a parallel universe in which parents and local authorities and schools are allied, and fighting together for the interests of vulnerable children. That’s the sort of alliance even a government as disreputable and vindictive as the one we currently have would find challenging to confront.

But in this one, local authorities are mostly like Kent. The blame the tribunals for doing their job and making rulings based on law. They blame the parents for fighting for what their children are legally entitled to. They lobby for a system that will make it harder for them, with calls for compulsory mediation, which the government seems minded to accept. And why? Because it will further gum up a rotten system and leave parents lost in bureaucratic quicksand while their children suffer unconscionably.

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