A mother who took the Education Authority (EA) to an independent appeals panel to get her autistic son support says he has suffered mentally and physically.
Her nine-year-old son had to wear pull-up nappies to class, and sometimes sat in a wet one all day because there was no-one to help him change.
The County Antrim family lodged three appeals against the EA over his needs.
The EA said a transformation of its special needs services was under way.
The boy was diagnosed as autistic at age four, and has been in mainstream school since nursery. He is now in Year Five.
His family argued that he needed the support of a dedicated classroom assistant and asked for a special educational needs (SEN) assessment in 2020 when he was in Year Three.
‘It never should have got to this’
He has an eating disorder which severely limits what he can eat, and cannot use the bathroom unaided.
For years he was classed as “failure to thrive” because his weight and height were so far below the average for his age due to his restricted diet.
At one point he became so ill that he was close to having to be fed via a tube into his stomach, his family said.
Their request for a SEN assessment was declined, and they went on to lodge three appeals against the EA, before going to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (Sendist).
Sendist rules in cases in which parents are unhappy with how the Education Authority has dealt with their child’s special educational needs.
In September 2021, the tribunal ruled in favour of the family, who have spoken to BBC News NI anonymously to protect the boy’s privacy.
The tribunal found the support offered by the EA was inadequate and that the boy should have a one-on-one classroom assistant for every hour he was at school.
Sendist also said the assistant should be trained to help with his eating and toileting.
The boy’s mother said she felt vindicated by the tribunal’s decision.
The tribunal’s ruling laid out repeated attempts by the boy’s family to have adequate support for their son at school.
They made the first of three appeals against the EA in February 2020.
The EA had initially refused a statutory assessment – which identifies a child’s special needs and whether they need help at school – but conceded on appeal.
An assessment must be performed for the EA to give a statement of needs, a legal document which sets out the help they should have.
In April 2021, after two appeals, the EA issued a statement of needs which allowed for the boy, who was then in Year Four, to have five hours of support a week.
This was the subject of the family’s third and final appeal, in which they argued that their son required support for every hour he was at school.
This was rejected by the EA and the case went to Sendist, which upheld the family’s appeal.
Freedom of Information requests by BBC News NI show the number of appeals to the tribunal has increased year-on-year since 2015, with the exception of 2020-2021.
Between 2015-2016 and 2020-2021, the tribunal received 1,683 appeals.
Almost 60% of them were conceded by the authority before they reached a hearing.
Of the 187 appeals that went to a hearing, the tribunal sided with the parents in more than 60% of cases.
The EA told BBC News NI it had launched a project to address “increasing number of statutory appeals and concession levels”.
‘Chronic and persisting’ problems
Solicitor Nicholas Quinn, who represented the family in their appeals, said he had never seen a statutory assessment which adequately met a child’s needs.
He said this case was “not an outlier” but “indicative of a chronic and persisting issue between parents and the EA”.
Mr Quinn, whose practice specialises in children’s rights law, added: “Time and again I have experience of similar issues with other statements and appeals.
“Delay can cause tangible harm to the children required to wait.”
Rachel Hogan, from the Children’s Law Centre, said the number of decisions overturned on appeal showed the EA was ignoring the evidence put before it.
“Obviously when there’s a failure to make an evidence-based decision, you have to ask yourself: ‘Why is it not based on evidence?” Ms Hogan said.
“Our working assumption is resources have dictated the decision-making processes and put bureaucracy in the way of early intervention.”
In County Antrim, this family are hopeful for their son’s future and confident in his abilities.
Learning at home in lockdown, his literacy improved and he moved out of the “failure to thrive” category.
As of this week, for the first time since nursery, he has his own classroom assistant.
“It may be from the comfort of his own room using a computer, but I do believe he’s destined to do something great,” his mum said.
“I want to give him the confidence to believe in himself, even with his differences or his difficulties. He needs to remain his unique little self.”
Transformation an ‘absolute priority’
Last year a Stormont committee found children with special needs had been “failed for many years” by the EA, and there were “elements of dysfunctionality” within the authority.
In 2020 the authority apologised after a damning internal audit which found “unnecessary and undue delays” in the statutory assessment and statementing process.
In a statement, the EA said transformation of its special needs and disabilities services was an “absolute priority”.
In February 2020, the authority launched the Statutory Assessment Improvement Project to “reduce the backlog of statutory assessments, as well as addressing other key issues including the increasing numbers of statutory assessment appeals and concession levels”.
A spokesperson said: “The project has already delivered wide-ranging process improvements across our Statutory Assessment and Review Service (SARS), which led to the number of statutory assessment cases which had been open for more than 26 weeks at the end of each month being reduced from more than 1,000 in November 2019 to zero by March 2021.
“The transformation project has also involved the development of revised guidelines, staff training and monitoring, which are currently being rolled out alongside a significant recruitment exercise to respond to a sharp increase in assessment demand.
“It is anticipated that all of this work will have a significant positive impact on appeal trends and the review’s findings will be available early in the new year when they will be considered by key external scrutiny committees.”
Source: Autistic boy ‘suffered physically’ waiting on school support – BBC News (January 2022)