All parents want what is best for their children and an obvious (and very important) part of that is, of course, providing for their education. If a child has a learning difficulty then he/she may require special assistance in school to help them to reach and maximise their potential. But how can parents access this assistance without becoming overwhelmed by the various hurdles along the way?
Parents who are concerned with their child’s progress should first speak with the child’s teacher or the school Special Education Needs Coordinator (SENCO). Every school will have a SENCO available to assist in these situations. Following this discussion, the school may organise for the child to receive extra support, such as additional reading or tuition. Further action may be taken in a small number of cases, and this usually happens if concerns remain about a particular child’s progress in school, e.g. if the child requires help and assistance which is not commonly available in schools or simply not within the school’s budget.
This is where the Education Authority comes in. It is the Authority’s role to consider such children for assessment and to decide whether to make direct provision for their educational needs. If the Authority decides to proceed, the child’s educational needs - and the provision required in order to meet them - are set out in a legally binding document called a Statement of Special Educational Needs.
Parents should be aware that it is their legal right to ask the Authority to consider their child for assessment and to further ascertain whether they require a statement to be made for them. This right arises under Article 20 of the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 1996.
Under the Department of Education for Northern Ireland’s Code of Practice, on the Identification and Assessment of Pupils with Special Educational Needs, there are usually 5 stages to the process which leads to a statement being made for a particular child:
The child’s teacher identifies the special educational needs (SEN) and specific information about the needs of the child is collated. Following this, the child may be added to the school’s SEN register.
The SENCO may then collect further details from other relevant parties - such as parents, the child’s GP and teachers - to gain better insight into the child’s needs. From this information, an Individual Education Plan (IEP) is adopted to address the child’s SEN. This IEP should then be kept under review.
Help from professionals outside the school environment is sought at this stage; for example, an educational psychologist or speech therapist will be brought in by the school.
If the needs of the child are significant and complex and/or have not been remedied despite the measures adopted by their school, the Education Authority can consider the child for an in-depth ‘statutory assessment’ of their SEN. This will be led by an educational psychologist and will consider input from a variety of disciplines.
A ‘statutory assessment’ can be requested by a range of interested persons/agencies such as the parents, school, GP, or Health and Social Care Trust. As above, under Article 20 of the 1996 Order, parents can request that their child be considered for this statutory assessment at any time.
The child is issued with a statement which will document the child’s needs and what measures are going to be put in place to support them in their education. Once a provision is included in the statement, it must be met by the Education Authority. The more definite and unambiguous the statement, the less scope there can be for any restriction being placed on help or services. Statements are reviewed annually by the Education Authority in accordance with their statutory duty.
The SEN system can be daunting for parents who have no previous experience of it. This is especially so for children who require statements to be made for them by the Education Authority. The process is not an easy one and there are many hurdles involved. However, once every stage has been completed, the child should have a statement in place which meets their needs.
If this is not the case then parents can appeal (in most circumstances) to the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST). This is a process that we are highly experienced in dealing with here at Worthington’s Solicitors, and we are always happy to offer professional advice on dealing with SEN issues and appeals to the SENDIST.
To discuss further, please contact Brian Moss for a confidential consultation.