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An Abattoir for Sacred Cows

May 9th, 2009

The Department of Health White Paper - Valuing People envisages an annual increase of around one per cent of children with severe learning difficulties. If their parents want them to be educated in a special school, they need to receive a Statement. Statementing is a bureaucratic process under the control of Local Education Authorities (LEAs). It could be, and it should be a multidisciplinary one, but it isn’t. It is regulated by Law and is designed to define the very different needs of children requiring special attention and the way those needs are to be met. It is a passport to admission to a special school that is impossible without it.

There is a fiction – and it really is a fiction – that tribunals are not the same as courts.  It is suggested that they are just informal proceedings with the law absent, and that lawyers are superfluous and independent. I am sorry to disillusion you. The Law is ever present. Statutes, Statutory Orders and the precedent of previous cases guide decision taking, although these can sometimes be total gobbledegook to the layperson. Witnesses present evidence, but need to have their arguments questioned in cross-examination. A paid lawyer, who is appointed by the Lord Chancellor, acts as chair of the panel. Members are appointed by the DfES. There are 175 such Tribunals throughout the country.

The scales are weighted against parents. Criminals are entitled to legal aid defence, but this is not the case with parents of children with special needs trying to do their best for their children, and, they may have to pay for a lawyer if they want one. Furthermore, if they have to get medical reports, they have to pay for those too.

The answer is not to provide legal aid in the present economic climate. There could, I suggest, be a ‘pro bono’ role for 3rd year students in the law departments of universities, a useful learning experience – maybe better than studying Roman law – and much better than nothing for parents.

Better still, slay two sacred cows instead.

    • Sacred Cow Number One: the writing of Statements by civil servants. End it.
    • Sacred Cow Number Two: scrap Special Educational Needs tribunals, with all the paper-chasing, time consuming, and money-wasting rigmarole that they involve.

Why not appoint multi-disciplinary bodies, comprising retired head teachers, medics, physio’s, educational psychologists and one or two lay members to work off reports, and draw up Statements of Educational Need? A clerk could keep them right by the law. Then, if parents do not go along with their decision, give them a personal hearing and pay for any evidence they want to provide. If that fails, an arbitrator.

Sorry.  There will be no jobs for the boys or girls, no jobs for lawyers or accountants. But it should save some money.