The Good Schools Guide Blog
The Good Schools Guide's Director of Special Educational Needs, Bernadette John, is outraged at the public money wasted on depriving children of the school places they are entitled to.
Local authorities unjustly deny requested school places, assessments, or additional support to children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) in more than five out of six cases.
That’s the conclusion of a BBC analysis of Ministry of Justice data, which shows that councils currently lose 86% of cases that go to the SEND Tribunal.
Outrageous waste of public money
Why is nothing being done to halt this - the outrageous financial and emotional strain placed undeservedly on parents, and the huge amounts of money wasted by councils on fighting these doomed legal cases?
Parents are compelled to take their local authority to tribunal when the councils refuse to assess a child for special needs; to place them in the school which the parents believe best meets the child’s needs; or where therapy provision is denied.
Even winning parents denied costs
Very few parents qualify for legal aid these days - thanks to government cuts - and the costs for a solicitor, barrister, and expert reports and witnesses can easily top £20,000 where it concerns a school placement. And, adding to the stress and injustice, when you win your case (five out of every six times, remember) you do not receive your costs back.
The gap between haves and have-nots
How many families can find, and then write off, this sort of money? Well there’s an uncanny correlation between the leafiness of a borough and the number of SEND tribunals fought each year – running into the hundreds for authorities in well-heeled areas of the South East, to single figures for some inner city boroughs. Remember it’s the parents who trigger the tribunal.
Gloating and milking
In the summer, the Baker Small law company put out gloating tweets about wins over parents in SEND cases. This prompted a group of parents to dig into its affairs. They found that £1.7 million had been spent with or earmarked to the firm in the last financial year by local authorities. One parent told the BBC that this money could have paid for 25,000 hours of specialised speech and language therapy, rather than adversarially - in fighting parents who were trying to support their children.
In another indication of the scale of spending, the investigators found that three counties – Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Worcestershire - had paid almost £1.2 million to this same firm between 2010 and 2016. You can multiply that to take into account all the local education authorities in the UK (currently more than 200) to get some idea of the total spend.
Clear evidence of bad judgements and waste of money
Let's get back to that top figure and the clear evidence: local authorities are making bad judgements in the vast majority of cases and then using public money to try to prevent the right provision being awarded to a child.
Here’s what I call for:
- Reverse the position that parents cannot claim back their costs in cases they win. Wouldn’t this concentrate the authorities’ minds a little better to pursue only those cases where there is a strong chance that their decision is right? Parents who don’t win wouldn’t get their costs back, so authorities would have little to fear if they are making fair decisions.
- Impose financial penalties on local authorities pursuing vexatious cases. When some counties pursue an average of more than two hundred cases to tribunal per year, compared to an average of five for others, something smells, and parents are justified in believing that some councils take this route to slough off parents who are not up to the fight, financially or emotionally.