Council leaders defend taking parents to tribunal over SEND support

Council leaders have defended their decisions to take families to tribunal to settle disagreements about provision for pupils with special educational needs to MPs this morning.

Parents are occasionally taking “unreasonable positions” about what provision their child is entitled to, leaving councils with little choice but to settle the matter in court, one council leader told the parliamentary education select committee this morning.

It comes after Schools Week revealed last week that Medway council faces shelling out the same amount in legal costs after a failed attempt to make a school admit an autistic pupil as the school had originally requested in extra funding to meet that child’s needs.

Meanwhile councils have spent £100 million on fighting parents seeking support for children with high needs over four years, but lost nine out of 10 cases.

Thelma Walker, MP for Colne Valley, raised the figures with council bosses as part of the education select committee’s inquiry into the state of special educational needs this morning, which in previous hearings has focused on a lack of funding for SEND pupils.

Richard Flinton, chief executive of the North Yorkshire county council, said tribunals were necessary when councils can no longer “negotiate” with parents.

“Most people are reasonable but sometimes for whatever reason somebody will be hung up on a reason and you can’t negotiate your way out of it, and then you have to have some place to arbitrate and rule on it,” he said.

He gave the example of a family who are “pushing to be re-located from North Yorkshire to Kent because they believe better provision will arrive in Kent for their child”.

It’s an unreasonable position to take

“It’s an unreasonable position to take and we need to work that through with the family and if we can’t work that through there will be a point at which we need to arbitrate what’s happening there,” added Flinton.

When Walker pointed out more than just “a few people” are ending up in tribunal cases , Flinton said in North Yorkshire 80 cases were set to go to tribunal last year but only 10 ended up in court.

Parents who disagree with the provision and funding a council determines for their child can go to a tribunal court. In turn, schools rely on the provision and funding laid out in Education Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) to support pupils with high needs.

Meanwhile Steve Rumbelow, chief executive of Rochdale Borough Council, said going to tribunal was “the right thing to do” in some cases.

However he added that sweeping SEND reforms under the 2014 Children and Families Act were meant to make the system “less adversarial” yet tribunals “have not worked in the way it was envisaged”.

The current set-up with tribunals is “more expensive than the arrangements were before”.

He also admitted the tribunal success rate was low.

Finally John Henderson, chief executive of Staffordshire county council, said the council did all it could to try to avoid “entrenched positions” on both sides.

Last week a landmark judicial review found Medway council had unlawfully removed provision set out in an EHCP for an autistic pupil, including a sensory room, to try to force a school to admit him.

The school had requested £40,000 in additional funding to support the child which Medway had refused – but lawyers told Schools Week this is the amount the council will now have to pay as a result of losing the case.

The council leaders today all agreed their spend on tribunals is impacting on their high needs budget.