Landmark parental choice ruling over autistic boy

 This comes from the Foundation f0r People with Learning Disabilities website. Thanks to Norman from the NAS for sending me the link. In the UK we often get inter-agency disputes over funding issues. Health, education and social services are all funded out of the public purse but they guard their budgets ferociously. I recall a case involving a former pupil of mine in which the health authority was resisting a three way split with education and social services to cover the cost of a residential placement. They insisted that they would only pay for health care costs. The other agencies were glad to agree when it emerged that health care accounted for the majority of the costs!

These disputes are particularly galling when social services and education argue over funding as both are departments of the same local government body. This may be changing as child and family services and local education authorities are increasingly merging with each other. Meanwhile judgements like this set a welcome precedent for parents who argue their case for making the best use of the public purse free from inter-departmental rivalry and cost cutting.

The mother of an autistic boy with special educational needs won a groundbreaking ruling in the High Court today which could give greater weight to parental choice of schools for disabled children.

Solicitors for the family welcomed the ruling, saying it would provide “a more holistic approach” to children’s services.

The case arose after the London borough of Lewisham, the local education authority (LEA), identified a day special school as suitable to meet the needs of “O”.

O, who cannot be named, has complex and severe learning difficulties.

But his mother wanted the 12-year-old to board at a special school maintained by another LEA.

Her lawyers challenged the stance taken by Lewisham education chiefs before a Special Educational Needs and Disciplinary Tribunal(SENDIST).

They asked that O’s statement of special educational needs be amended to reflect her preference.

But the tribunal decided in February this year that the school chosen by Lewisham, where O became a pupil in September 2006, could meet his educational needs and, essentially, that the more expensive residential place could not be justified.

Today Andrew Nicol QC, sitting as a deputy High Court judge, allowed the mother’s appeal and said the tribunal had erred in law over the question of cost.

The tribunal found that the difference between the day school and boarding school was around £20,000 a year.

It said that, although the residential school chosen by the mother was a very good school, it would be “an inefficient use of resources” under the Education Act 1996.

David Wolfe, appearing for the mother’s solicitors, argued that Lewisham social services was providing £16,588 worth of respite care for the mother while O remained at day school.

That would not have to be provided if O went to boarding school, and the real difference in costs to Lewisham would be less than £3,500 a year.

Mark Roscoe, for Lewisham, argued that the Education Act did not allow the tribunal to take account of the social services expenditure as it was not an education department cost.

But today Judge Nicol disagreed and held that it was a relevant cost under Section 9 of the Act and amounted to “public expenditure” which could be taken into account.

Allowing the mother’s appeal, the judge urged that the tribunal should consider the case afresh as soon as possible.

Later the family’s solicitor, Emily Gent, of the firm Maxwell Gillott, said the ruling was significant because parental preference has generally been denied in SENDIST appeals “where a tribunal accepts that a cheaper adequate alternative that meets educational need is available – even if there are other costs to public bodies which could be saved if the more expensive school place is chosen”.

Ms Gent said: “The tribunal, and local education authorities, can now take into account money saved from other sources that would be used to meet non-educational needs.

“This encourages a holistic approach to provision of services to children in line with the Every Child Matters framework constructed after the Climbie inquiry.”

Release Date 11/09/2007

Source Press Association

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