Parents of special needs children ‘face fight for support’

Posted: 14th March 2023

Some parents have said they face a “fight from day one” to get Education Authority (EA) support for children with special educational needs (SEN).

BBC News NI has learned the EA has conceded about two-thirds of cases brought to an independent tribunal by parents of children with SEN.

The information came in a response to a freedom of information request.

The EA said it knew it must do better to improve children’s outcomes.

Parents and schools can appeal to a tribunal if the EA refuses to assess or statement a child.

The Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) deals with appeals where parents or schools say that the EA is not dealing with a child’s special educational needs appropriately.

If a parent thinks their child is having difficulty in school and may need extra support they can request that a formal assessment of their needs is carried out by the EA.

Following an assessment, a statement is then a legal document which sets out a child’s needs and the support they should have in school.

In 2022-23, so far the EA has conceded in 207 out of 311 cases where parents or schools appealed the authority’s decisions about an assessment or statement for a child.

The SENDIST tribunal dismissed the appeal on fewer than five occasions.

The majority of the other appeals were withdrawn, which is likely to mean the EA and parents reached agreement prior to a tribunal hearing taking place.

Tracy McEntee’s daughter Erin is now seven and in primary school but was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder in 2019.

However, when Ms McEntee made a request to the EA to assess Erin’s needs in 2021 she was turned down, and subsequently appealed to the SENDIST tribunal about the EA’s decision.

“This was a very, very long and arduous and stressful process,” she told BBC News NI.

“I had to collate the medical evidence from the original diagnosis, parental information and then there was evidence from the school. I had so much evidence.

“I was running around getting all this stuff, taking ages, it was an extremely stressful time.

“Meanwhile Erin was struggling in school, struggling emotionally – it was awful.”

But just before the tribunal hearing was due to take place, Ms McEntee was told that the EA would assess Erin after all.

“You feel a lot of anger and frustration but I was more angry for Erin,” she said.

“I had been doing all this running around, my child was struggling in school.”

Erin now has a statement of SEN and gets additional support in school.

“She has a classroom assistant from 09:00 to 12:00 Monday to Friday and she is a different child.”

“The school have gone above and beyond to get Erin looked after.”

‘Fighting from day one’

Laura O’Hanlon has also been through a similar experience with her five-year-old autistic son Matthew.

“He has a speech disability so he finds it hard to communicate certain things, he uses a device to communicate sometimes,” she said.

“But he’s amazing, he’s got a really good sense of humour and he loves to be around people – we wouldn’t change him for the world.”

However, when Matthew was due to start pre-school Ms O’Hanlon requested that the EA assess him but the request was turned down.

Like Ms McEntee she appealed that decision to the SENDIST tribunal.

“That’s very overwhelming as a parent to hear ‘I have to appeal something, I have to go to a court’,” she told BBC News NI.

“So it’s very, very stressful and here’s a child who clearly has a need that needs addressed and you have to start fighting from day one.”

Ms O’Hanlon paid to get a private educational psychologist’s report as part of her appeal.

‘Recovering was the worst part’

Before a tribunal hearing could take place, the EA conceded and agreed to assess Matthew.

But Ms O’Hanlon said she also had to appeal the contents of Matthew’s statement and the level of support it outlined for Matthew.

“I spent another year going back and forth before Matthew was given the statement he needed,” she said.

“A lot of that was stress – it takes away from my time with Matthew, it takes my energy from my other children.

“I think that’s the worst part, recovering from that was the worst part.”

Laura has now finally received a statement from the EA for Matthew, and he is now in a learning support unit in his mainstream primary.

“Without a statement it falls on to the school’s shoulder to find a way to help the child,” Ms O’Hanlon said.

A spokesperson for the EA said transforming its special educational needs and disabilities support system was an “absolute priority”.

“We know we must do better to improve the outcomes for our children and young people with special educational needs and we are undertaking an ambitious transformation programme in collaboration with parents, schools and a wide range of partner organisations,” they said.

According to the separate response to BBC News NI’s Freedom of Information request from the Department of Justice, which runs the SENDIST tribunal, the EA has also conceded the majority of appeals lodged with the tribunal in previous years.

In 2021-22, the EA conceded in 178 out of 330 cases brought to the tribunal, with only 11 appeals dismissed.

In 2020-21, the EA conceded 183 out of 280 cases brought to the tribunal, with only seven appeals dismissed.

Source: Parents of special needs children ‘face fight for support’ – BBC News

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