Reflections on tribunal

Some years back I found myself in the primary Head teacher’s office with the Head and the SEN Governor. My son had voted with his feet, he has never suffered fools gladly and he considered the adults around him to be fools so he was refusing to go back. Perhaps an example is in order? My son has Type 1 diabetes and should have free access to water and the loo. It’s simple logic, if he’s thirsty (generally a consequence of his blood sugars being high) he needs to drink, if he drinks, he’s going to need the loo! Not rocket science is it? So why was he told not to drink at lunch time as he wouldn’t be allowed out of class in the afternoon to use the loo?

That’s one simple example, there are many and worse ones I could have cited. I’m not going to go into details, that’s not the purpose of this post. The SEN Governor made herself clear in our meeting – remove my son from the school’s roll, or she would take me to court for my son’s truancy. She was a LA officer, in fact I believe the behaviour and attendance officer at that time. I would have loved her to try, I knew full well that she couldn’t touch us as my son had a statement! Still, she had been bullying throughout the meeting and I don’t like being threatened, so I acted first. It was off to SENDIST for me, for disability discrimination.

I am a typical high school under-achiever. I had no fancy qualifications under my belt. I trained as a hairdresser (now NVQ 3 equivalent) then later took over my dad’s small take-away – a chippy. I’d just started a degree with the Open University in Life Sciences (having quit science at 14) as I’d fully expected to be home educating. At the time I thought that no-one was going to tell me I couldn’t home educate, so I’d get myself one of them there fancy degree malarkeys. I’d describe myself as naturally quite bright, but academically a lazy sod. I’d rather do manual work than paper work. Paperwork is so boring! So what I’m trying to say is that I’m pretty much an ordinary person.

So, on to SENDIST. This week I had a very brief email conversation with Katherine Runswick-Cole. I knew she’d written a paper on the SENDIST experience & as I’m seeking to do a bit of research in this area, I got in touch. It’s given me a lot of food for thought. From the outset the paper makes for sober reading. She suggests that parents often are caught in a no-win situation, simultaneously positioned as unable to cope, or delusional if they thought they were coping [with their child’s disability]. Was I delusional for believing I was coping? Well no. I wasn’t coping, I was thriving. The school however, positioned me another way, that of, using the SEN Governor’s words, a problem parent who reads up all there is to know about their child’s condition & believing that they were an expert. Was I? Did I? Nope, well not in the manner I was being accused of. Anyway, what is wrong with a parent getting to understand their child’s condition? Who on earth thinks it’s good practice for a parent to know nothing about a condition that you’ll experience day in, day out? What a fundamentally stupid position.

Katherine talks about the stress and financial implications of going to tribunal. Ironically in my communication to her, I’d said that I think I missed out on the stress hormone somewhere! So I got thinking. What are my callers going through? Am I unwittingly missing the amount of stress they’re being put under? Yes, quite possibly. I do try to reassure parents that LA ‘rejection’ letters should not be taken personally. Most letters that parents read out to me are all but identical bar the child’s name. What’s with that? Only those in the know at the LAs know for certain. What about the parents who are actively in the tribunal process? What can I do or say to ease their stress? This may come down to understanding where the stress is coming from which could be quite complex and not disclosed. Katherine discusses [marital] relationships that are already stressed and tribunal being the last straw for some and a bonding process for parents for others. What doesn’t break us makes us stronger?

How about the stress that LAs cause to families? Well, the overwhelming majority of parents, me included, actively want to work with their LAs but too often the LA simply isn’t listening. I went to tribunal again more recently, this time over son’s post-16 placement. I needed to secure an additional year’s funding at his school should he need to re-sit any of his GCSEs. His Sixth Form College choice doesn’t do Level 2 courses & none of the other colleges do his GCSE subjects. The LA simply didn’t listen and had no alternative placement to offer up to the tribunal, so they conceded that morning. But for parents who don’t know the law, imagine having to wait 6 months with such uncertainty? And the poor students? And what the heck were my LA doing wasting tax payers money, my tax money, bringing the SENCo from the college (whose suitability was never in question), an EP (whose report I would have torn to shreds) and a solicitor to a tribunal that they could never have won? Do any of the officers actually stop to care about any of that, or are they too busy involved in their own stress?

I am absolutely convinced that if my LA had an in-house officer(s) in place who thoroughly knew the law, and who had listened, it would have saved them far, far in excess of the £550 I shelled out for an EP report. But, instead they passed everything over to an external solicitor rather than making a quick phone call to me….. Parents as well, in my opinion, are very concerned about not hurting the feelings of others or causing trouble for others, such as the LA officer. Oh dear, we’re just too human. Anyway, I shall be more mindful of stress and endeavour to do my best to reduce it for other parents, thanks to Katherine!

What about the cost of tribunal? Is it costly? Well, the only cost associated with my 1st appeal was the initial cost of photocopying, a stamp and four phone calls (one each to SENDIST, Parent Partnership, NAGC (now Potential Plus) and, of course, one to IPSEA). I was lucky with my DDA appeal, the school didn’t realise that any of their actions were discriminatory and so they sang like a canary! Silly Billies. My second had the added expense of the EP report. How do other parents know what to spend money on? Some go to tribunal with no independent reports and win, others with multiple reports but lose, and all others in between. Additionally, Katherine quite rightly points out the fact that many families with disabled children also become ‘disabled’. Like many others, I had to give up work to support my son. A great many families suffer dreadfully financially because of the lack of support (in general) for their family. They may be desperately clinging to their own home and subsequently outside of Legal Aid. Parents need to spend their hard earned cash wisely, but how would they know what is wise?

Not all families find themselves aware of advocacy services like IPSEA. The loneliness of being a ‘disabled family’ as Katherine puts it, is just awful and I’ll add, socially constructed. If we got what is rightfully our children’s, we wouldn’t be anywhere as nearly disabled as we are. No-one really believes you – oh you must be making it up, the school is wonderful – just as you’ve been asked for the tenth time that month to collect your child (unlawful exclusion). It becomes impossible to work, and what if you have more than one child with SEN/D? A family I know well has three adopted children, all in and out of hospital. The dad had to give up work as the mum simply couldn’t split herself three ways. Even now, if they have 2 children in 2 different hospitals (which is often) the third comes too and misses school. Ok, so it was their choice to adopt, they didn’t have to. But even on benefits, they’re saving the tax payer a small fortune in care costs. Luckily they have avoided tribunal because, quite handily, they know me! If they had to buy reports? Well, the quality of life for the whole family would suffer badly.

I don’t know if it’s because Katherine’s report is now old (2007), but she suggests that father’s voices are generally absent. I speak to a lot of fathers who appear to be either taking the lead for tribunal, or are equal partners, but not sure of the percentage of callers overall. I don’t have those stats. I do understand that, as Katherine says, it tends to be the mother who takes the lead simply because it is seen as a) the mother’s role to parent and b) often it is the mother who is available for the circus of fruitless meeting that result in tribunal. How horrid is that last comment? ‘The circus of meetings’ – because that’s something I think that all us parents can agree on. The hushed ‘pre-meetings’ where professionals decide on the outcome before talking to us. Is that cynical? Well, not from what I hear but then again, no-one calls me because everything is going so well.

A final note. Katherine’s paper also talks of LAs not following tribunal directions and/or children actually getting the provision as ordered by the tribunal. How do you know if a school implements provision? Well, if it’s a therapy or specialist teacher time, this ought to be easy enough to track but what about the other stuff? The bulk of the statement which details classroom differentiation and such like?

When my son started his (independent) secondary school at 11, I knew it wouldn’t follow his statement or challenge him academically. I fully expected the house of cards to come falling down. It didn’t. All the expert advice that came with him stated that he should have a slow integration. In agreement with the Headmaster, I sent him full-time right from the start. He spent six years there, did they ever follow his statement? No. They went way over and above what the statement could have ever provided. They gave him what Dame Warnock herself may have envisioned, they gave him the right to be himself, to develop his own personality, to be secure in his own being and to leave as a self-assured, confident young man. They took a jack-hammer the concreteness of the statement and set about teaching the child using their skills as educators. The cost of this education? Nothing more than it would have cost if he had attended the closest suitable state school. So why do we end up at SENDIST?

A post-script? Katherine said that mothers often end up advocating for other parents. Guilty as charged!


Runswick-Cole, K. (2007) ‘‘The Tribunal was the most stressful thing: more stressful than my son’s diagnosis or behaviour’: the experiences of families who go to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDisT)’ Disability & Society 22:3, 315-328


4 thoughts on “Reflections on tribunal

  1. Gosh. We never got as far as tribunals – what we experienced was stressful enough.
    We really need to bring people together, don’t we? Humanise in an attempt to stop the hurting.


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