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Jo interviews Anita Chopra and Chris Barnett of Match Solicitors on when and how parents can access additional educational support for their disabled child.

 

Jo Anita, Chris, many thanks for joining me on this vodcast about special education. Chris, when might a child be entitled to additional learning support in a school?
Chris There can be a lot of circumstances in which a child needs extra help in school and those are the ones where they would be looking at getting additional assistance to be put in place for them.  Obviously children who have learning difficulties and who have a greater difficulty in learning than other children of their age are the most common group that would require extra help.  There will also those who have a disability which prevents them from accessing the curriculum or reduces their ability to access the curriculum and, again, they will need extra help or support in order to overcome their disability and to engage with the education that’s being offered.  So there can be various situations where parents will be looking to get help for their children and what they would be looking at getting goes beyond what’s generally available in a mainstream school.  So you can go to the local school and there will be a level of provision which is available to all children but for children with severe complex needs or with learning difficulties who require extra help which goes beyond that, then that’s what they are going to be looking at securing going forward.
Jo What different types of help are available?
Chris There are lots of different types of options in terms of support that can be put in place for children and it may vary depending obviously on their particular needs.  For children who have particular difficulties within the classroom obviously that may need extra help within the class, even from a specialist teacher, a qualified teacher with particular specialism in their needs or from a teaching assistant of some kind, so someone who can be with them and assist them with being on task and attending to whatever work they need to be dealing with.  On top of that, children may need extra therapy provisions such as occupational therapy or speech and language therapy to assist them again with learning.  Occupational therapy can address motor skills and handwriting, important parts of their education as well.  As well as, sometimes more complex therapies or more unusual therapies, like physiotherapy or music therapy which again can be of assistance to some children in enabling them to access the curriculum.  In an sense, there is no limit on the sort of provision that can be sought as long as the educational provision is helping a child to access the curriculum but obviously in every case it really depends on professional advice and getting the evidence which demonstrates what the child needs and why.
Jo What is the process of obtaining this additional support?  Is it through an Education, Health and Care Plan?
Chris Well, Education, Health and Care Plans would be the way to go in a situation where the local school is unable to make that provision themselves from its own resources.  All local schools, maintained schools, are required to use their best endeavours (it’s a legal term) and effectively it means to do what they can and within the money that they have and the staffing that they have to meet the needs of children with special educational needs.  If they are not able to do that, and if they are in a position where they aren’t able to actually address all of the provision that’s required, then obviously with funding issues state schools are often running short in terms of being able to provide full-time staffing or to access therapy provision and so they do need to access additional funding, then that would come through obtaining an Education, Health and Care Plan, what used to be called the Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) but has recently changed to the new system and that’s what we will talk about moving forward but there are still people out there who will have Statements, at least for a couple more years to come.  So that’s the situation in which you’ll need extra help really.  An EHC plan is when a child requires support which can’t be delivered by their local school or if they need to go into a special school of some kind, whether a state special school or even an independent special school, they will need an EHC Plan in order to be able to attend that sort of placement because legally special schools will only take a child if they have the document in place.
Jo Thank you Chris.  Anita, what is the process that a parent needs to go through to obtain an EHC Plan for their child?
Anita So as Chris has just mentioned an Educational, Health and Care Plan is generally given to parents when their child’s needs require it, so it is necessary.  One generally knows that that is important when the external therapies are required, so external speech and language therapy or things that basically the school can’t provide within its own budget.  At that point, alarm bells should start ringing and the parent will know that they ought to go and at least try and seek an Education, Health and Care assessment, that is the first part of the process, where you can write to the local authority and you can ask them to begin the process.  Once they get your correspondence, they are entitled to take six weeks to determine whether or not they are actually going to carry out this assessment.  Schools can also make the request on behalf of parents but it must be done with their consent.
Jo Thank you.  What are the benefits for a child of having an EHC Plan?
Anita The entire process of obtaining an Education, Health and Care Plan really is very daunting.  It’s very stressful, it’s very emotional for parents and, to be honest, it’s at that stage that they do seek legal advice and I feel that that’s growing as the years go by, certainly because processes and procedures are constantly changing.  So the parent will come to us and seek advice in terms of how to obtain an Education, Health and Care Plan.  Once one is provided for by the local authority, and they have obtained their final Plan, it’s at that point that we will scrutinise that Plan and make sure that the level of provision that is contained therein is detailed, and is actually commensurate to the child’s needs.  Often the Plan doesn’t even describe the child for whom it’s written and also the provision, so i.e. the placement, the school that the parent actually wants their child to go to.  So, we look at it very holistically.
Jo Thank you.  I sense that there are often battles to be had with local authorities.  How do parents go about challenging local authorities, if they need to?
Anita So, once you have obtained your final Plan, the parent will have two months within which to appeal that Plan.  Mediation should be considered but if mediation fails then again that’s when parents come to us and we will appeal the decision of the Plan, the content of it, as well as the placement and assist them through proceedings at the First-tier Tribunal (Special Educational Needs and Disability).  So that is the process and we will effectively hand-hold the parent and make sure that the local authority is doing what they are supposed to be doing and we will help parents to collate all the relevant information that they require to prove that the Plan sadly is either inadequate, not quantified or indeed that the placement that has been offered was genuinely not the best place for the child.  It is quite a long process, the Tribunal has tried to condense the timeline but it is still very very daunting and sadly anything can happen throughout that process so it is important to support parents through that.
Jo Once you have succeeded in obtaining an EHC Plan that everyone is happy with, how long does that stay in force?
Anita Well, Education, Health and Care Plans now go from 0 to 25  so one would hope that at the point at which a child is given an Education, Health and Care Plan that that will continue annually for as long as the child or young person needs it.  Sadly, at annual reviews, it is the case that local authorities will try and say “Well, oh look, little Johnny is now making progress so clearly they don’t need a Plan anymore”, but, sadly, it’s not as simple as that and again we work tirelessly to ensure that the child’s plan will continue for as long as it needs to.
Jo Thank you Anita.  Given that the tribunal process is a very daunting one, do you have any top tips for parents who are about to embark on that process?
Anita Yes, well I think the first thing to say is not to panic, sounds obvious, but it is important not to panic to make sure that you can think as straight has possible.  It is also important to make sure that parents know that there is help out there for you.  It’s available and it’s important that you seek that out.  It’s really at the time that parents require help with Education, Health and Care Plans that they do make sure that they do find help out there.  Seek assistance at an early stage, it’s really important that the sooner you start the process the better it is.  If possible, obtain experts’ reports.  Independent experts’ reports would be fantastic but of course not absolutely paramount but, experts’ reports in general, effectively collating as much evidence as you can to really corroborate the fact that your child does have learning difficulties and how severe they may or may not be and, lastly, to remember that seeking legal advice is not a negative option, it’s a positive one because at Match solicitors, my colleagues and I work tirelessly with parents to make sure that we get you the help and support that you and your child need.
Jo Anita, Chris, thank you so much for joining us on this vodcast.  It was enlightening and I do hope that you will join us on future vodcasts.