"The hope you give parents is nothing short of a miracle"
"It’s not so much a path you take..."
"It’s not so much a path you take when you enter into an Educational Tribunal with your child – it’s more of a rollercoaster ride through a jungle of educational policies, evidence, report terminology and ‘legalese’ that, at best, makes you feel like a stranger in a strange land and at worst, loses you completely.
For some it may prove to be an extended and intensified version of the same emotional, mental and even physical rollercoaster ride you have been on since first learning of your child’s difficulties.
By the time you reach the door of the room in which an Educational Tribunal is taking place and you step in, see the chairs, the table, the water and the tribunal panel sitting in front of you...well you will know for sure that you passed the welcome sign for ‘Complete Frustration’ a long, long time ago.
In the last 18 months we found ourselves staring hard at such a vista. Our child was about to enter Year 7. We had made a ‘parental choice’ – one we thought had been carefully born from a series of visits to see schools both in and out of the borough. In the end, we identified two excellent schools but both out of Borough. We duly put in our request for them and, perhaps not surprisingly, the Borough promoted its local, solution insisting that it could do it all – educationally speaking.
And so it was off to Tribunal.
But this time we decided to go prepared and so we sought specialist legal advice. Speaking to a lawyer was not something we wanted to do, but the need for one was made clear after our previous Tribunal experience. In short we had gone into that Tribunal believing – as we think other parents may do – that if we just put forward our case, which we thought was pretty strong and backed by evidence – that the Tribunal would find that our child should have additional therapy.
If you experience the Tribunal process – and we really hope you don’t – you’ll find there’s plenty of paperwork. It’s easy to be over-awed by the amount! But it isn’t the reams (sometimes suitcases) that will get you if you go it alone. It’s the ‘Caselaw’.
You may make the best case ever heard for your child and their needs, but it might as well go right to the rubbish bin when the legal representative for the Local Authority starts reciting previous educational court ruling cases like they’re ordering lunch. You’ll hear a country’s worth of counties and boroughs mentioned almost staccato-like as they cite the case law that has gone before, for the reasons why the Tribunal needs to completely ignore your challenge.
So the first time we ever tried we were fairly effectively lambs to the slaughter.
We realised that we not only needed a specialist lawyer but we needed to get our child independently assessed by experts. That was crucial. And we also had to steel ourselves because, frankly, going into Tribunal is an emotional, gut wrenching if not soul-stripping process. The nature of our child’s difficulties presented a number of transitional issues around the school and concerns about curriculum access, but no matter what your Tribunal, you find yourself talking about your child and their challenges and even your challenges to a room of strangers.
And that’s not easy at the best of times, let alone in a dispute.
The Tribunal does its best to be compassionate. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that you – as a parent - will hear lots about your child that can bring the full extent of the issues home in cold harsh ‘black and white’.
For us, in our Y7 choice, we ended up at Tribunal – and it lasted two days. Every child’s story is different and has different aspects and so I won’t dwell on those. The result - we won on the therapies but lost on school placement.
So we decided to send our child to the local school in the meantime because, much as we were tempted, it was never an option to home-school. But at the same time, we also appealed the decision. You can only appeal on points of law. You appeal to an Upper Tribunal – and it really requires a barrister plus your solicitor to represent you.
This time we won but only after a fraught few weeks. Normally it’s 28 days for an appeal deadline by either side. In our case the Local Authority tried to appeal our successful decision to the Court of Appeal saying it concerned an important point of law, but they tried two weeks beyond the deadline set for an appeal. The appeal, we’re pleased to say, was therefore rejected. So we had won. But what we won was just the right to start over again!
And so we did.
We asked all of our independent experts to revisit our child at the local school – just to doubly make sure we were doing the right thing and because now a good few months had passed. We then had a second two-day hearing and, at the end of it the barrister – yes this time not just a representative of solicitor from the Local Authority or their legal department – but a specialist education law barrister employed by them for the second Tribunal hearing – reeled off the ‘War & Peace’ version of Caselaw. We lost count of the number of cases that were referred to by the Local Authority. But – thanks to our solicitor this time - we had a few of our own, including the one we had now won in the Upper Tribunal! I still don’t know what they all were - it was a swirling whirl of cases!
And then it was over.
Throughout the Tribunal, of course, we had Douglas Silas representing us. Having Douglas and his team really did make a difference. Not just in his role as the legal eagle on disability and special educational needs (SEN) but also in their organising us and keeping us focused. As a parent you can get so wound up in the minutia of matters to the point where it can be detrimental to your case. Douglas Silas was able to cut through all of that and bring us back on track to the relevant key points. That was crucial. And they had to do it several times. Sorry.
We know – particularly having been through several Tribunals now – that parents don’t always win. And sometimes what is meant to be is meant to be. From the outset - win or lose - we were determined to try and do the best for our child that we could do. We knew we had identified what our child needed in terms of educational input. We had selected the right school by visiting around 12 schools in and out of Borough and then we made repeated visits to the key locations including the Borough’s proposed school.
When we lost the first Tribunal we sent our child to that local school, reluctant as we were – but realising that we had to be seen to at least give it a try. Then we went out of our way to ensure that we were not incorrect about the local option by asking independent experts to re-visit our child in the local school. And when we had satisfied ourselves that it was not the right thing we continued to pursue the Tribunal appeal.
But here’s the final thing.
A Tribunal has an impact – a cost. In our case it has been at the expense of considerable time, emotional and financial cost. And we realise, as we always have done, that the ‘cost’ is not just on ourselves. It’s on the staff of both the child’s existing school and the intended school. It’s on Borough officials. It’s also on all those who attend or give evidence at the Tribunal. We also clarified going in what the real financial costs were going to be to the Local Authority. Throughout this all we were conscious of that – or at least tried to be.
And there’s also the ‘cost’ on your emotions.
A Tribunal can be seen as a series of highs and lows in terms of beliefs and self-doubts. Some might say we were lucky. Nonsense. We believed we had a case. We sought a lawyer who both understood what we were going through and who believed in us. Moreover we believed in ourselves and we firmly believed that we were doing was the right educational option for our child.
We didn’t want to look back and say that we didn’t try on her behalf to provide an educational needs-led route to adulthood that would give our child as many ‘tools’ as possible to cope when there isn’t the training or support that is available to youngsters. Ultimately we believe that everything we can do now to try and ensure that our child is a valued member of society is of benefit. But through it all we kept reminding ourselves that we were seeking to do the right thing by our child. We have always believed that.
iThe legal route is not a cheap option but when you’ve tried communication, mediation and everything else, then, sadly, it’s the option you have to pursue.
The Tribunal route is a difficult and challenging journey, but it’s a journey that despite its particular length and twist and turns in our case, we ultimately are glad we have made."
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