Stephen* has severe cerebral palsy. Despite his physical and learning difficulties, he had attended a mainstream school, getting by with inadequate support for many years. However, when the local authority’s EHC plan named a college that was completely inappropriate, his mother, Helen*, had finally had enough.
“They sent me to look at colleges, all of which were completely inappropriate for my son’s needs. My initial reaction was to say, 'You can’t make me do that!' but I complied with their requests and visited college after college as they asked. I spent so much time gathering all the information that was needed from each college, dutifully collating it all to pass it onto the local authority, only to find that they couldn’t care less. I started getting upset when I realised that although I was doing everything they asked, nothing that I wanted or that Stephen wanted made any difference at all. I had found Treloar’s, a college with the capability and resources to provide for Stephen’s educational and physical needs, but it was becoming increasingly clear to me that the local authority had no intention of naming our chosen college in the EHCP. They wouldn’t even acknowledge that Treloar’s existed.
“I would have recurring, frustrating telephone conversations with the local authority in which I would say to the woman on the other end of the phone, 'You’re not listening to me, are you?' In the end, I just told her repeatedly, 'You’re not going to win. I’m not backing down'.”
Stephen’s cerebral palsy had been caused by medical negligence at the time of his birth. Helen’s previous solicitors had settled Stephen’s claim and his compensation, which made no provision for his educational needs, had been paid into the Court of Protection. In many respects Helen was led to believe that the worst of her battles were over, but as Helen later found out, there were additional hurdles to be overcome.
“When the negligence claim settled out of court seven years ago, we weren’t given any guidance about what to expect in the future. Nobody told us that we might face these difficulties in seven years’ time.”
With Stephen’s exams looming, constant problems with school and decisions with regard to his next educational placement becoming urgent, Helen went back to her negligence solicitor for advice.
“It took six weeks for him to admit to me that this wasn’t his area. I was then referred through a Court of Protection contact to another solicitor whom I paid to help me, and after a further exasperating wait he too accepted that he didn’t know what he was doing. I then had to fight him to get my money back.
“I was beside myself with stress. It seemed that nobody I spoke to knew what they were doing and I had wasted so much time. Unless you’ve had a disabled child, you can’t imagine how much extra time and hard work is required for every little thing in their daily routine. In addition, every aspect of Stephen’s school life was a problem, including the arrangements for how he would take his imminent exams. Whereas other parents of teenagers could send them to their rooms to revise, I had to do everything with Stephen, and all the additional work had to be crammed into the short time that he was with me at home before and after school. Added to that I faced the constant demands of dealing with a school that was intent on making inappropriate decisions with regard to his education, all the additional emails and administration that was involved, and the growing realisation that even if I did everything that the school asked me to do, it would make no difference to the outcome. No-one was listening. It seemed that no-one could help. The pressure was all too much.”
Then by chance someone suggested Helen call Laxmi Patel, Boyes Turner’s education specialist.
“At my first meeting with Laxmi I was quite upset. I burst into tears as I told them about Stephen and the problems we were facing with his school. From the minute I met them I knew that I could trust them. For the first time, I was able to hand over the worry and the donkey work, knowing that although I was still involved, it was being handled. I had been doing my best but I needed guidance. Having Laxmi and her team take over the process allowed me space to breathe. I believed they could deal with it and that made all the difference in the world.”
Our education specialists commissioned the expert reports that were needed to assess Stephen’s needs properly. They represented Helen at a contested tribunal hearing, securing a placement for Stephen at his chosen specialist college.
It hasn’t been easy for Helen but given his permanent disability, Helen believes that Stephen’s education is fundamental to his quality of life.
“What happened to Stephen has happened and there is nothing I can do to change that. My best hope for him is damage limitation. Challenging the local education authority isn’t for everyone - don’t do it unless you are prepared to put your life on hold. I did this because I feel really strongly about my son’s education. I wasn’t doing it for respite. For me this was about securing the best education that was available for him. My son has physical challenges arising from his condition - I live in fear of a deterioration in his physical health. At Treloar’s I know that in addition to his education he can have the medical treatment and receive the follow up that he needs. Because I stood up to the local authority my son is in the best place for him. In that respect I know I have done my best.
My advice to other parents would be that if you believe in what you are doing, just do it! If you don’t, their time at school is soon gone and then they’re adults, stuck at home, with no education or life experience. What are you going to do with them then?
These schools bully you. They put their whole weight and might into bullying you, but you can challenge their decisions when they are not appropriate. My advice to anyone who cares deeply about their disabled child’s education would be to push as hard as you can for the best outcome".
If you have a child who has special educational needs and would like to discuss your concerns with one of Boyes Turner’s specialist education lawyers, call us on 0800 884 0723 or email [email protected].
All enquiries are handled in strictest confidence.
*All names changed to protect client privacy.