Special Educational Needs - Is The System Failing Our Children?

There has been widespread coverage in the news in recent weeks around the Education Authority’s failings in its SEN (Special Educational Needs) Services. Following an investigation by the NI Audit Office, it has been reported that that over 85% of children were waiting more than the statutory 26 weeks for an assessment and statement of SEN.

Whilst the wait is no doubt a difficult and anxious time for Parents and Children alike, often parents are unhappy with the Education Authority’s (EA) findings and find themselves in circumstances whereby they have no alternative but to appeal the EA’s decision.  

In Northern Ireland the Special Educational Needs and Disability Tribunal (SENDIST) considers parents’ appeals against EA’s decisions. The Tribunal is often a last resort when parents cannot reach agreement with the Education Authority regarding their findings. SENDIST also deals with claims of disability discrimination in relation to children at school.

The Tribunal is an independent body, which can only accept appeals on specific matters. This article looks at the issues SENDIST can and can’t deal with, how you lodge an appeal against an EA decision, the time limits for lodging an appeal and timeframes for the Tribunal to issue their decision.

When can I appeal?

  • If you or your Child’s school have made a request to the Education Authority to assess your Child’s special educational needs and the Education Authority refuses to do so
  • If the Education Authority completes an assessment of your child but takes the decision not to make a statement
  • If the Education Authority issue a statement, or make amendments to an existing statement, you can appeal against the statement contents
  • If the Education Authority decides to withdraw your Child’s statement
  • If after a re-assessment the Education Authority decides not to amend your Child’s statement
  • In addition, you may also be able to lodge an appeal if the Education Authority takes the decision not to re-assess your child, or refuses your request to have them placed in a different school

When/what can I not appeal?

  • If the Education Authority decides not to send your child to an independent school, unless there is a new, or newly amended statement issued
  • Against the way EA carry out their formal assessment
  • The length of time taken to complete the assessment
  • Against the way the EA is arranging the help as set out in your child’s statement
  • Against the level/award of funding being provided
  • Against the way(s) your Child’s school is meeting his/her needs
  • If the Education Authority decide not to amend your child’s statement following an annual review

How to Appeal

  • If intend to appeal against the Education Authority’s decision in respect of your Child then the appropriate forms must be completed and returned to the Tribunal Office together with supporting documentation.
  • We can offer you step by step guidance and advice to assist with the drafting and submission of any appeal application

Time Limits

  • You must loge your appeal within two months of receiving the decision from the Education Authority that you are not satisfied with
  • If the Tribunal accepts your appeal, the relevant Office will register your application and will send a copy to the Education Authority within 10 working days
  • If the Tribunal are not in a position to deal with your appeal the should notify you accordingly within 10 working days
  • Where possible the Tribunal aim to notify your of the date and location of the hearing at least 10 working days beforehand.

Tribunal Hearing

  • The Hearings are normally held in the Tribunal Hearing Centre located in the Royal Courts of Justice in Belfast
  • A Tribunal Panel will hear your case and this is usually a made up of three members, one of whom will be a lawyer and this person will chair the appeal hearing
  • Anyone with Parental Responsibility for the child who is the subject of the Appeal may attend the hearing
  • Your child may attend to give their views but would not usually be present for the duration of the hearing
  • If you have intend to call witnesses to the hearing an agreed list must be sent to the Tribunal at the time of listing

Tribunal’s Decision

  • The Tribunal aim to have your appeal dealt with within four to five months after the date on which your appeal was registered
  • They aim to issue you and the Education Authority with a written decision within 15 working days after the hearing

Disability Discrimination Claims

  • Disability discrimination claims are different from special educational needs appeals.
  • The SENDIST deals with claims under both headings
  • If you feel your Child has been discriminated against because of his/her disability, you may be able to bring a claim against the Education Authority  
  • If you wish to make a claim under both headings, these claims can be consolidated and all issue dealt with at a single hearing

If you and your family have been affected by any of the issues outlined above and wish to lodge an appeal against an Education Authority decision then please contact Louise McNally in our Family and Matrimonial Department on 02890 200050 to discuss further.