Trying to get my son Matthew into the right school, where he would receive support for his special needs, felt at times like an impossible task. He was diagnosed with autism when he was three years old and his wonderful kindergarten did their best to support his needs. However, it was clear that an ordinary primary school would not be the right thing for him.
This meant that I, like many others with SEND children (children with special educational needs and disabilities), had to go through a long ordeal to get my son the right help.
In addition to autism, my child had severe hypermobility. That meant he was very weak and could not pick up a pencil for more than five seconds. In kindergarten, he walked around talking to himself using the limited language he knew; he could not concentrate because all the sounds and other children overwhelmed him.
Despite seven professional reports showing that my son needed extra support, we were told by Cognus, a firm working on behalf of the Sutton Council, that he would not be assessed for an Education Health and Care Plan . Parents like me know how important this document is to get your child into a special school with tailor-made support. The company said that Matthew was too young for his IQ level to be determined and that the SALT report (logo and language therapist) we provided was not detailed enough.
As I talked to other parents, I learned that it was common practice to be these important assessments illegal rejected. However, local authorities have a legal duty to identify and assess the special educational needs of children for whom they are responsible.
One parent I spoke to had a child with verbal dyspraxia and ADHD. They were rejected. Another parent had a little boy with autism who was having a terrible time in school. Rejected again. In my opinion, the municipality rejects these assessments because they save money.
A spokesman for the London Borough of Sutton said: “As advice, our priority is to ensure that our children and young people in need of special education and disability services receive the most appropriate care and support.
“For each individual case, we work according to the national guidelines and follow the legal framework for education, health and care plans that the Ministry of Education has provided.
“Our latest Ofsted inspection has shown that we comply with these standards and put the needs of our children and young people first. The Council and Cognus (Educational Services Provider) work closely with parents, carers, partners and educational environments to ensure that the right measures are in place to meet the needs of each child. ”
It took me 10 stressful and emotionally exhausting months to get my son into a school where he could thrive. Thanks to my legal background, I was able to appeal the decision of my local authority – but I found it all overwhelming at times.
The publication of a government summary last week, launched in 2019 to look at why the 2014 Children and Families Act did not work for families like mine, follows years of delays and apologies. I’m glad the Department of Education encourages feedback, but their 104-page document seems naive. It assumes that local authorities without adequate resources will follow laws and protocols that put the needs of our children first. They do not want that. Corners will be cut.
Following the review, the Ministry of Education could potentially increase its level of oversight of the SEND application process through better data monitoring and standardization. However, I am concerned about the introduction of an “inclusion dashboard” so that parents can see which schools are available in their area. I think it can limit the opportunities for families when the local authorities make the lists. To me, it feels like a step in the wrong direction.
All too often, families like ours end up sandwiched between schools with money that do not have the expertise to help our children and advice that actively misleads families about their rights. When families go to court, they win 95 percent of cases. The sad truth is that some parents with children with special needs who can not handle the bureaucracy just do not get the support their children desperately need and deserve.
It no doubt sounds good to say that parents should mediate with local councils before going to court, as the report suggests, but these negotiations are intensely stressful. Forces people to negotiate with a side that Break the rules by refusing to give children assessments or plans to which they are entitled, it will only prolong an already time-consuming ordeal.
Before I had my son, I naively assumed that children with special educational needs could get the right support in this country because education is a fundamental right. The process of trying to help Matthew showed me how wrong I was taking. Years later, I still can not shake from the feeling that it should not have been so hard.
I can only hope this review will make a difference. But without an understanding of how deep problems run, I fear that many more children will be left without crucial support.
Hayley Harding is a lawyer and co-founder of the campaign group, Let Us Learn Too