How far should parental choice go?
I am a parent and I know an awful lot about my children.
I know what their favourite foods are, their shoe size, and what makes them laugh. Yet if they have a problem with their teeth, I take them to the dentist; if they are unwell, I take them to see a doctor. Sometimes other people do know best and have more knowledge than me about what to do for them.
Within education, things are a little different and especially in the world of Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs). A parent can request a range of professional opinions, from psychologists to doctors, yet decide that their judgments are not compatible with their parental choice. The SEN Code of Practice is clear on this as the guide for parents says:
The local authority must comply with your preference and name the school or college in the EHC plan…
However there are caveats:
…unless provision there is considered to not meet their needs, not represent good value for money or would impact negatively on the education of others.
The primary aim for schools is inclusion as the SEN Code of Practice says there should be a ‘presumption of mainstream education’. This is based on a variety of pieces of legislation and research including The Equality Act 2010, Children and Families Act 2014, and the importance of the 1994 Salamanca Statement which believed that:
Those with special educational needs must have access to regular schools which should accommodate them within a child centred pedagogy capable of meeting these needs.
The Salamanca Statement saw no need for special schools, instead seeing them as being against inclusion and against a child’s basic human rights. The issues of special needs provision and inclusion will be addressed in a later blog. For now it suffices to say that we live in a system where inclusion in mainstream is held in the highest regard.
How does this notion of inclusion link with parental choice? Here is an example.
- Casey is in Year 3 and has a learning need which means that she is working at P5 and has not made any progress for over two terms.
- She has a diagnosis of Autism, is not yet toilet trained and her peers are scared of her aggressive outbursts so she works 1:1 with a TA outside of the classroom.
- She has had support from educational psychology and specialist teachers from the learning needs and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) teams whose advice has been used to create SEN Support Plans.
- Her school had successfully received Top Up funding which had paid for 12 hours of 1:1 support.
What her dad wants
School and her parent decided that an EHCP would be useful. Her parent, a single father, wanted an EHCP so that Casey could have additional funding to stay at her mainstream school. He understands that Casey can be challenging, and she regularly hits her sister, but wants them in the same school. He has said he does not want a special school as it will ruin Casey’s life and is not prepared to view any.
What the professionals think
School had requested the EHCP with a view to Casey having the chance to be educated in a provision that could fully meet her needs; they feel guilty that they are not able to give her the education they feel she needs and deserves. Added to that they feel that, in supporting Casey, other children are being negatively impacted. They are supported in this by the Educational Psychologist and other professionals. The local authority are naming the school in the Final EHCP due to the parental preference for mainstream.
Who is right?
The other professionals or her father?
Ultimately, the needs of Casey should be paramount regardless of the father’s concerns about special schools or the the additional challenges the mainstream school might face. If a specific school is in the best interests of the pupil then that is the school they have a right to attend.
Yet there are cases, like my story above, where the parents may not be acting in the child’s best interests and, as professionals, we have to sit back and watch it happen. Often we are merely left clutching at straws for possible solutions and, even if we feel that we can argue that we are not meeting needs, are not being cost effective and other learners are being effected, we still get nowhere.
A while a go I listened to a discussion between Headteachers on a training day. They were talking about exactly these kinds of cases. Their frustration was clear and they were concerned for the children they felt they were letting down by not being able to offer them everything they needed. What they were witnessing was not inclusion, in spite of their efforts, as the children they discussed were increasingly isolated without a peer group who they shared common experiences with.
They were not against children with EHCPs being in their schools. In fact they felt the opposite. But what they did feel was that their experience of delivering inclusion was not listened to when they knew that they were unable to; other children’s needs were being neglected in order to accommodate one child.
Many schools face similar situations regarding EHCPs every year where they feel that their professional opinions are not listened to or taken seriously. This leaves them with the knowledge that they are failing vulnerable children; children who deserve the best and not ‘make do and mend’.
However, we must be mindful that there is a flip side where many parents experience schools who simply do not want to educate their child preferring them to attend a new school in the child’s ‘best interest’. This is equally as unfair and not child-centred.
In answer to the question I started with, parental choice is an important element that must be supported. There is a ‘but’ as the opinions of professionals should be given greater value than they currently are and ultimately the child’s needs should take preference over the parent’s.
I have not yet experienced a situation where parental choice has been overridden inline with the caveats above from the SEN Code of Practice and I cannot imagine how it would ever happen.
The EHCP process should be child focused and based around ensuing the provision matches the needs of each individual. Inclusion is broader than inclusion within a mainstream school; pupils deserve to be included in the right school for them.
I do not believe that the needs of the child are always at the heart of the current decision making process. Do you?