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Successful challenge to a Local Authority's decision
Peter* has autism. His condition affects his ability to communicate and to interact socially with others but as his mother, Miriam, knew, it did not affect his ability to learn. When it came to choosing a school, Miriam chose a local mainstream Church of England nursery and school. Peter’s autism was not apparent when he started nursery but came to a head in Reception.
“I discovered that although I was dropping him off at his Reception classroom, as soon as I left he was being put into nursery to play so that they didn’t have to teach him. He was then brought back to his classroom just before I came back to pick him up. My child was going to school but he wasn’t being educated. They didn’t even know that he could read. I had to tell them that.”
Miriam learned through the school that Peter was autistic. She was told that he would need a Statement for him to have the additional support that he needed to stay in school.
“I had no idea how things worked within the educational system. I was told I had to do a Statement for my child. I thought we’d just write a couple of sentences about Peter to be put in his folder. Then I learned that professional experts would come to assess him - they would make the Statement and we would have to sign it to say we agreed. When the Statement arrived, we looked at it and I wasn’t in agreement with it. What they said didn’t match my child. I spoke to the SENCO and told her that I didn’t agree with what was written about Peter in the Statement. She told us that if she didn’t put these things down he would never get full time one to one support.”
Peter‘s Statement came through outlining everything that the school had said about him.
Miriam trusted the school. As a parent with no experience of handling special educational needs she felt that Peter’s school should be working with her to obtain the support that Peter needed. In fact, she felt that this was the start of the process of moving Peter out.
Miriam wasn’t alone. Three other families had children in Peter’s class with similar problems. Over time, the other three families withdrew their children from the school, leaving Miriam feeling isolated.
“With the whole focus on my child, that was when the pressure started. Every time Peter did anything – if he sat on the floor, if he cried, all normal things for a five year old child to do from time to time – they called me into meeting upon meeting. I was not being listened to about my child’s abilities. I was made to feel that I was denying my child his education because I was pushing him to stay in an environment that I was constantly being told was not suitable for him. “
Miriam was told to go and look at special schools.
“The SENCO went with us to visit special schools. I didn’t want to see special schools but those were the schools I was told we had to see. It was only when I went to visit other mainstream schools that I realised there were children with the same disabilities as my child and they were being supported within a mainstream school.”
The Statement was amended naming a generic special school but Miriam was convinced that Peter was capable of learning and would do better with the right kind of support in a mainstream school where he could model the behaviour and learning habits of able bodied children.
What Miriam didn’t know was that the law gave Peter the right to be educated in a mainstream school, as long as they could find a school that was willing to accept him.
“I didn’t know my rights. I didn’t know I had any choice. I was led to believe that I had one choice. If I didn’t agree the Statement my child was not going to be supported, so I had to agree.”
Then Miriam’s independent supporter suggested she speak to Laxmi Patel, a solicitor at Boyes Turner’s specialist education team.
“It hadn’t occurred to me to see a lawyer. I’d never thought about taking the Local Authority to court but when they named the wrong school I thought, “What do I do now?” My independent supporter said that I could appeal the decision but I needed a lawyer to help. She said it had to be a specialist educational lawyer and recommended Laxmi at Boyes Turner. My first thought was, “Can I afford this?” but after sitting down with Laxmi and going through the history Laxmi explained to us how the system worked. After I spoke to her I realised,” Yes, I can do this!” and I knew I would be able to fight for our child.”
Laxmi helped Miriam appeal the Local Authority’s decision. In order to manage costs, Laxmi encouraged Miriam wherever possible to take the steps that she could herself, such as visiting mainstream schools in other Local Authorities – something her own Local Authority had not advised her to do owing to the additional cost of funding support and transport. She advised Miriam to mediate with the Local Authority. Laxmi supported Miriam throughout the appeal process with realistic advice about her prospects, increasing the level of hands-on support, eventually taking over running the appeal when the Local Authority vigorously contested the appeal.
“Laxmi let me know that our case could go both ways. She explained that the judge would know that the law gives every child a strong right to be educated in a mainstream school. As long as we could find a school which could accommodate my child and meet his needs then we had a right to challenge the decision.”
“I realised I had power. For the first time, I knew my rights. I knew my child could learn and that his education was worth fighting for.”
Laxmi and her team took over the appeal and within a short time negotiated an amendment to the Statement naming Miriam’s preferred school - a mainstream school with a special unit attached in a neighbouring Local Authority. In addition, Laxmi secured a financial contribution from the Local Authority towards the cost of Peter’s transport to his new school. The appeal was withdrawn without the need for a tribunal hearing. Peter is now doing well in his new school and has the support that he needs to thrive.
“It was a big relief when we won the case. Peter has made progress now that he is in our chosen mainstream school and receiving the right kind of support. He now talks in full sentences. After school he says to me, “Hello, how are you? How was your day?” He asks me, “Mummy can we go out? I want to go swimming,” or “I want to go to Grandma’s house, can we go on a train?” I believe that his progress has been helped by him copying the good behaviour and communication that he is seeing in a mainstream school.”
Miriam was able to challenge the Local Authority’s decision to place Peter in a special school in circumstances in which many other parents feel forced to give in to pressure. With Boyes Turner’s specialist education team behind her, advising her about her rights and supporting her through the process, negotiating with the Local Authority on her behalf and ready to provide representation and advocacy in court if necessary, Miriam was empowered to secure for her disabled child what she had been convinced was not possible.
“At the start of this process I was very tearful and emotional. I trusted people but I felt that the school had let me down. I’m a nurse. I work in public service and I look after every person who comes into my care. I couldn’t understand why my child would be treated this way. My advice to other parents would be to sit down with your child and assess what he knows, because many schools don’t have the time or patience (particularly if your child doesn’t sit still) and they might not even be teaching your child. My child was speaking and doing the things a mainstream child could do but he just had a disability. He was able to learn. He was teachable. So he had a right to be educated in a mainstream school.”
I am so happy at the outcome, I don't think we would have had such a comprehensive service from any other law firm, and you took the worry away...I do not regret a single second of the whole process, apart from the bit before you got involved.
James' mother, Boyes Turner client