What to do if your child’s school doesn’t support their special educational needs
In England, over 320,000 children and young people have an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) that entitles them to special educational needs (SEN) support at school. Thousands of other families suspect their child has SEN, but have yet to get a formal diagnosis.
Sadly, though, many parents find themselves battling with their child’s school to get appropriate SEN support put in place.
‘It’s a story we hear relatively often,’ says Eleanor Wright, solicitor and chief executive of SOS!SEN, a national charity aiming to empower parents and carers of children with SEN to fight for their children’s rights. ‘Where there is a diagnosis, most schools will accept it, although we have had the occasional case where they don’t.
‘But where there has not been a diagnosis, parents tend to have more difficulty, with around 50% or more finding that schools are sceptical and unwilling to make referrals for assessment or diagnosis.’
Why might a school refuse to accept or support a child’s SEN?
There are a number of reasons why parents might find their child’s school is reluctant to accept or support their SEN.
‘In some cases, there’s an assumption that parents may be “neurotic” or exaggerating their child’s needs,’ Eleanor explains. ‘That may be true of some parents, but overall, parents do tend to know their child best.’
This can be a particular problem where a child suffers from a condition such as autism, where they’re often able to mask the extent of their difficulties during the school day, only for the tensions to come out as meltdowns once they’re home.
‘Because schools don’t see the behaviour in question, all too often teachers assume parents are making it up or exaggerating, or that problems at home are purely caused by poor parenting,’ says Eleanor.
Similarly, parents whose children are achieving well academically might struggle to have their SEN recognised.
‘Many school staff and local authorities are under the misconception that a child can only have a learning difficulty if they are behind academically, or of average academic ability,’ Eleanor explains. ‘This is categorically not the case: it’s perfectly possible for a very able child to need an EHCP because of other disabilities such as communication, sensory, emotional or mental health difficulties.’
Sometimes, schools are sceptical of the reasons behind a parent seeking an SEN diagnosis or EHCP. ‘I’ve heard one headteacher saying he believes parents push for EHCPs because they think it will make it easier for their children to get into their chosen secondary school, or to get concessions for grammar school entrance exams,’ Eleanor explains.
‘In my experience, that is simply not true, not least because applying for an EHCP can be such a battle that few parents enter the process lightly.’
Ever-decreasing school budgets are likely to play a part in determining what support a school can offer children with SEN. Schools have to fund the first £6000 of support for pupils with EHCPs from their own budgets, and many simply can’t foot the bill.
Many families, frustrated with NHS waiting lists, decide to seek private assessment, and they too can find their child’s school is unwilling to accept their diagnosis.
‘The explanation given is often that the expert is paid by the parent and will therefore say what the parent wants to hear, but there is no particular magic about being employed by the NHS that makes their reports more reliable,’ Eleanor explains.
SEN support in English schools: what the law says
The law is clear that all maintained schools and academies have a duty to cooperate with local authorities in meeting their obligations to identify and provide for children with SEN (section 29 of the Children and Families Act 2014).
They must also use their best endeavours to ensure that every child’s SEN are met, whether or not they have an EHCP (section 66). ‘This is quite a strong duty, and schools that are not complying could potentially be challenged by judicial review through the courts,’ says Eleanor.
There is also a duty under the Equality Act 2010 not to discriminate on the basis of disability, and to make ‘reasonable adjustments’ if a child’s needs amount to a disability: in other words, if it is a physical or mental impairment that has a substantial and long-term negative effect on the child’s ability to do normal daily activities.
‘Normally, a child with an EHCP will satisfy that definition, and many children who have SEN but don’t have EHCPs also satisfy it,’ Eleanor explains.
‘The “reasonable adjustments” duty requires the school to take reasonable steps to avoid disadvantage to a disabled person, such as physical adjustments, support in class and on school trips, training for staff to help with such support, concessions with regard to discipline and the like.’
What to do if your child’s needs are not being recognised or supported by their school
The first step, if you’re struggling to get support for your child’s SEN from their school, should be to gather all the relevant information relating to their needs, including medical and school reports. This might include correspondence with their school and information written in their home/school book.
‘It is particularly helpful to get evidence about your child’s progress, or lack of it, and it may well be useful to use your right under the Data Protection Act 2018 to obtain copies of school records to access this information,’ Eleanor says.
In addition, try to get confirmation of their diagnosis and/or needs in writing. ‘Ideally this should be in the form of a reasonably detailed report that explains the factors leading to the diagnosis,’ Eleanor says.
If you have healthcare professionals or other experts such as a social worker involved with your child’s care, find out whether they would be willing to meet with someone from their school – their teacher, headteacher, special educational needs coordinator (SENCO) or school nurse – and explain what their needs are and how the school could meet them.
Make use of everyone who comes into contact with your child: not just their medical professionals, but clubs, childminders and so on. They can often provide extra insights into your child’s needs.
Whoever you speak to about your child’s needs, ask for follow-up in writing so you have a full paper trail. If you’re in contact with someone by phone or face to face, write or email immediately afterwards to confirm what was said in the conversation.
Make the most of charity helplines, workshops and advice centres such as SOS!SEN, which are equipped to give specialist help to parents navigating the SEN system. These are often able to give more detailed advice and support than the NHS, and in a shorter timeframe. Remember, too, that it’s often harder to communicate with schools and local authorities during the school holidays.
One of the best ways of ensuring your child’s needs are recognised and supported is to pursue an EHC needs assessment: the first stage in applying for an EHCP. This is because if an EHCP is granted, your child has a statutory right to have the listed provisions fulfilled, and their school cannot ignore their requirements.
As a parent, you have the right to ask your local authority to carry out an assessment, and while they don’t have to grant it, the criteria for qualifying are set relatively low: if your child has or may have SEN, and may need provision through an EHCP, they are entitled to be assessed.
‘It is a fairly complicated process, but help can be obtained from a number of sources, including SOS!SEN,’ says Eleanor.
Sometimes parents are tempted to get round budget issues and delays by providing specialist equipment that their child needs at school themselves, such as laptops and mobility supplies.
‘However, before you do this, check that the school is prepared to use the equipment,’ advises Eleanor.
‘Things like laptops or iPads may be relatively straightforward, but schools may be less happy to allow equipment such as wheelchairs, walkers and hoists, which may require trained personnel to use and may have insurance implications,’ Eleanor warns.
‘Even with smaller equipment such as laptops, be aware of the possible costs of repair and insurance.’
If you’re still not satisfied
If you’re still not happy with how your child’s school is managing their SEN, you may wish to make a formal complaint. Ultimately, you may need to escalate the complaint to the governors, and it’s worth involving the governor with specific responsibility for SEN.
‘Unfortunately, official complaints to schools have a fairly low success rate, but it may be possible to take it further through the local authority or, in the case of academies, the Education Funding Agency,’ Eleanor advises.
‘Safeguarding issues may need to be pursued through the local authority safeguarding officer, and complaints can be made to Ofsted; they will rarely investigate individual complaints, but receipt of a large number of complaints on similar issues may trigger an early inspection, and they keep complaints on file for consideration when they do ultimately inspect.’
It’s also worth considering an EHC needs assessment, if you haven’t already been down this route. ‘Even if a Plan is not issued, a needs assessment may well produce useful material which the school cannot rationally ignore,’ Eleanor advises.