Last week the DfE released a document to help young people with SEND complain about their support services. Although I’m not a fan of the pre-school design of the document, I commend the DfE for publishing this. Young people are too reliant on their local authorities, schools, colleges and universities to do the right thing. I am not generalising about the lack of support that is available, nor am I casting aspersions on the support that is out there. However, we do need to be mindful of the cutthroat nature of funding for SEND from central government and the overworked and under-trained bureaucrats who are responsible for implementing the SEND reforms. Mistakes do happen. But a mistake in SEND support can have long –lasting adverse effects on outcomes for children and young people. They can’t afford our failures.
Clarity about how to make complaints is important and four years on from the SEND reforms there is still a lot of confusion. I am an advocate for transparency, but legislation in general is riddled with vague language and contradictions, which, I suppose, are necessary to ensure some degree of fairness… So, do you know how this legislation affects your child? Do you even know what legislation I am talking about? Do you know your points of contact in your local authority or the school? Do you know where to go if you need advice? Do you know what the Education Health Care Plan is and how it is used to support you child?
If you don’t you need to keep reading. I’m not going to answer all those questions (But I’ll be more than happy to answer questions directly if you contact me. MM) What I will do is give you three tips on how to complain and this should lead you to answering some of those pesky questions above.
· Stay calm, even if that angry vein in your forehead is fit to burst. I can’t stress this enough. I know that you want to get angry and scream or simply breakdown and cry. But honestly this doesn’t help. If you get angry you will alienate the local authority or school and what help you get after that will simply be lip-service to shut you up. If they didn’t sympathize with you before you started crying, they won’t after. Oh, they might promise to help, but odds are they have 30 or so other parents weeping into their hands too. What you want to avoid, is avoidance. Hostility and tears won’t get your calls answered. Schools and Las are like hedgehogs, once you grit your teeth they will curl up into a spikey ball and be pricks whenever they can.
If you can remain calm and follow my next steps it will freak out whoever you are dealing with and you are more likely to get the support your child deserves.
· Know your rights. Here’s the thing, schools, colleges, local authorities will usually follow the path of least resistance. So, they may do just enough to get by and try to handle the fallout if it ever occurs. Most parents trust institutions to do the right thing. There isn’t enough money to do the right thing. Not a very optimistic view, but I’m betting it’s an accurate one. For this to work, these institutions operate on the assumption that you don’t know your rights. And, for the most part, this is true. Here’s a scenario that might help you see this clearer. You walk into a car dealership and tell the dealer you need a car for the school run in the mornings. You don’t know much about cars, but you have a small budget and you ask the dealer what they will recommend. Will the dealer do the right thing and sell you a car that is exactly right for your needs and within budget or will they try to sell you something out of your price range and not suitable for you needs to make a little extra on the deal? That is how local authorities work. They do not always have the money to do what is right, yet they present something that looks like it is what you want, but is a cheap knock-off version so they can save some money. So, the SEN Support your child gets may look good on paper, but that’s all it might be, paper. If you know what you and your child are entitled to, and you remain calm when asking for it, you are in a better position to ensure they do the right thing.
· Seek advice. When your feel you can’t fight anymore and you feel you heart fading and there simply isn’t an end to the tears, seek advice. I can’t stress this enough. You can’t do this alone and without the right support services in your corner you will end up feeling that the battle is impossible to win. You are honestly not alone. There are quite a lot of places out there that can support you and they are free (and we like free. MM). Before you engage with your school or whoever, take a deep breath, get a box of tissues and give one of these a try:
· Special Educational Needs and Disability Information Advice and Guidance Service (SENDIAGS) – Since the inception of the new SEND Regulations in 2014, each borough must have an impartial service for parents to seek help for their SEND services. They can offer face-to-face advice and can even go to meetings with you. Most definitely your first point of call for support.
· The Local Offer – Once again, part of the SEND reforms the Local Offer is a local directory of all services available to families. The directory can be a bit hit and miss from borough to borough, but is still a good place to look for local services that your child can benefit from. It includes everything, not just education, so there are health and leisure services that may be useful.
· Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA) – Not only do they have a wealth of information online, they also provide information, advice and guidance to parents to demystify the SEND reforms. As a charitable organisation, IPSEA have helped thousands of families get the right education support.
· Child Law Advice Service – They provide specialist advice and information on child, family and education law to parents, carers and young people in England. These guys are awesome and my go to place for legal advice. Well worth contacting them if all else fails, especially if your main hurdle is the local authority.
· National Autistic Society – Another charitable organisation working specifically with parents and children with autism. The NAS have several services that can provide information and advice for securing the best SEND education outcomes. The Education Rights Service (who are a great bunch of people who I am honoured to work with. MM) can give you advice on seeking an EHCP or on SEN Support. They also have an advice service for going to tribunals and have an exclusion service run by a very nice guy who should be knighted. You can find their services here. Unfortunately, the NAS cannot offer a face-to-face service, as they are mostly staffed by volunteers. This does not impact on the quality of service at all.
· SOS!SEN – They offer a free, friendly, independent and confidential telephone helpline for parents and others looking for information and advice on Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND).
· Contact – This is a nationwide service and also offers a helpline to parents. I like the fact that they have an online community forum where parents can share information and stories. This is a good place to start a revolution, and to network with parents who are facing the same issues as you.
· ACE Education – their information relates to current education law and guidance and covers state funded education for children aged 5-16 years in England only. Their advice and information aims to give parents up to date knowledge of law and guidance as well as practical advice on how to work with your child’s school to resolve any concerns. Although a more generic education service, they will be able to give advice on SEND legislation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many services out there that will be able to support you. My advice is to also look out for parent forums, as these can be invaluable sources of self-care when you are reaching the end of your tether.
And here’s an anecdote to help illustrate the above. As you may know, my son has autism. His school were on the verge of excluding him, because they had reduced the support staff in his class, he became agitated at the vacuum and they wanted us to pay for a member of staff to support him. We were in the middle of the EHCP process. There had been so many other failings at the school, but I never told them I was a SENCO or that I was an SEND advocate. Until the last time I was called into their office. After that discussion, suddenly one-to-one support was made available.
When my son’s EHCP draft came through and I had to rewrite it, I mentioned a few points of law and suddenly the plan coordinator, who I could never get on the phone, called me three times in one day. My son was placed in the school that was our first choice. He got a place in July to start in September, which is supposed to be impossible.
Stay calm. Know your rights. Seek advice. Miracles can happen.