By law every child is entitled to an “appropriate education” regardless of ability. The Council, legally, has to take the necessary steps to provide schooling that recognises the needs of the individual child.
Many parents of vulnerable children with special educational needs (SEN), have shocking stories of poor treatment by Derby City Council.
For Ashton Lind, the Council described his only schooling option for the future which would give him the best chance to “reach his potential” as an “inefficient use of resources”!
Who is Ashton…?
Ashton is a young boy, born in 2007. He has been diagnosed with autism and ADHD as well as other complexities which means that he finds interacting with people “incredibly unpredictable”. Like everyone, he is unique, he is not defined by his conditions. In the words of a popular maxim “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism”.
He has particular problems with how to process the abundance of signals from the environment which most people can routinely accommodate or ignore. He is near permanently in a state of “fight or flight” and managed anxiety; when this gets out of hand it manifests itself in severe behavioural difficulties for those around him.
Ashton is a young boy who likes his iPad, Xbox, cars, his dog, cat, family and their house. And what he thinks people like about him? “My hair, I’m cute, I’m lovely, and they want to be in my family”, and to cap it all “I’m fast”. He is articulate, knowledgeable in his areas of interest, and has an average level of cognitive and intellectual ability.
Ashton is a young boy trying to cope with all of this internally – his problems are invisible.
It was recognised by his parents, at a very young age, that Ashton had some behavioural issues. At nursery he was frequently hitting out at other children and throwing things. The only option available to them, as he got older, was a mainstream infant school.
Life got worse as he struggled to cope. He would disappear under tables, try and escape from school, hide up trees; his need to remove himself from the stressful environment was such that he would injure himself – on one occasion, so much so, that he fractured his elbow.
In January 2014, when Ashton was just over 6 years old, his parents felt something had to be done so they made a request for a Statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN); it should have taken around 6 months to complete.
The purpose of this was to secure more specialist provision to help Ashton with his education and to ensure his safety and well-being.
Delays in the SEN statement
The statement actually took a year to complete.
Despite Ashton’s documented problems, Derby City Council initially refused to initiate an assessment. This was escalated to a Panel who upheld the refusal. Eventually in May 2014, Danielle Lind, Ashton’s mother, took it to the SEND Tribunal which drew on further information from an Educational Psychologist. In June 2014, 6 months after the initial request, Derby City Council finally agreed to start the process and assess Ashton.
In September 2014 Ashton moved to Brackensdale Junior school – a mainstream provision with a separate specialist unit. The draft of his SEN statement was not specific about the support he should receive. This was contested by Danielle.
In January 2015, the final statement was approved, and in February 2015, Ashton moved to the specialist placement at Brackensdale – known as the “Phoenix” suite.
This complaint was referred to the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) who found in Danielle’s favour. The LGO noted that
“Mrs Lind had been fighting for support for her child for the past year and it has caused her enormous distress and stress for the family. Ashton has constantly been off school for long periods. Mrs Lind says she has been unable to work”
Ashton received no “appropriate education” from September to December 2014
The LGO concluded that
“…there is evidence of avoidable delay by the Council in issuing Ashton’s statement and this amounts to fault”
Whilst the Phoenix suite was a smaller class size of just 8 pupils, Ashton still had to enter mainstream schooling to get full access to the curriculum. There was an increase in noise and unpredictability in the environment which actually resulted in more distress and anxiety for Ashton, despite the best efforts of everyone involved.
The challenge of securing a more appropriate school
In September 2014, the Government introduced a new form of SEN statement – an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) which was designed to be a more comprehensive document about the child’s needs. Anyone with a SEN statement would have to be converted to an EHCP by 31st March 2018, and the conversion timescale was legislated at 20 weeks.
Danielle made a formal request for Ashton’s “conversion” to start in January 2016 – it should have been completed by June 2016. By June 2017, Andy Smith, Derby City Council’s Strategic Director of People Services had written to Danielle to apologise for the delay in the finalisation of the conversion and committed to close it out by July 2017. It was actually agreed in January 2018 – 18 months later. In the paperwork for the Appeal hearing, Derby City Council did accept that the delays had been “unhelpful”.
During this period Ashton was either in classes with children much younger than him, and of lower cognitive ability, or totally segregated in quieter areas of the school including the cloakroom and the kitchen. A totally untenable situation, for all.
In September 2017, on the return back after the summer break, Danielle explains the difficulty that they were in:
“I knew after the few days back in September that I could not send my child into an environment that caused him so much stress and anxiety like this , he was very anxious about returning and, when he did, it was like he had a breakdown. It affected his appetite; he would hit me, wander in the night and scream he was not going to school. It was devastating!”
After a few days of the new term he was removed from school for his own safety.
The Council had no answers to the fact that Ashton was off school. In the EHCP it named Bemrose school for his placement for his post-11 education, from September 2018. The independent professionals, funded by Ashton’s parents, all concluded that Ashton needed to be “educated within a peer group with similar communication needs and cognitive ability” that would cover the entire curriculum. In summary, their conclusion was that:
“This is not achievable within the current educational setting named within the EHCP ( Bemrose from Sept 2018) and thus the opinion ( of the professionals who had recently assessed Ashton) is that the present arrangements for his education are unsuitable”
The conclusions proceeded to confirm:
“Ashton requires a specialist educational placement which is able to provide more individual adapted lessons and resources that will ensure that academically, Ashton reaches his potential”
Derby City Council ignored this advice. The Council did not have a counter view about Ashton’s diagnosis, or a practical alternative for ensuring that he received an “appropriate education” or had any plans for his education for the rest of the 2017/18 school year. Their view was simply that a specialist placement, after September 2018, would be “ an inefficient use of resources”!
Ashton’s parents spent nearly £10,000 on engaging independent professionals and legal support to ensure that Ashton had access to an education that he was legally entitled to. Their preferred placement was at Alderwasley Hall which had confirmed that they could accept Ashton and address his needs. All of the appeal paperwork had been produced and was ready to be heard in Loughborough on 23rd January 2018 at 10am.
On the 18th January, Derby City Council conceded the position and confirmed that they would support Ashton’s placement at Alderwasley Hall. The court case was cancelled.
Ashton’s first day at his new school was 26th February 2018, having been out of any form of formal education since September 2017.
For the last 4 years Ashton’s progress, at best has been stagnant and, now, at the age of 10 he has the educational level of a 6 year old, despite having no learning disabilities.
Danielle reflects back on the situation:
“I was in pieces when I read the independent report on Ashton’s academic ability and progress (or lack of), I felt guilty for sending him all that time when he was making so little academic progress and hated me for sending him. I never realised the extent of the situation”
“Had the council listened to my concerns and undertaken the appropriate assessment measures and put in support earlier within the legal timeframe we would have been able to exercise our right to tribunal at an earlier point. If we weren’t happy with the content of the final EHCP document we could have ensured that our child’s difficulties may not have escalated to the point that they did. This would have not only saved the authority and tax payers money in the long term but also would have negated the impact on my child’s anxieties and ultimately the long term impact upon his mental health and the immense stress the Authority put our family through”
Ashton is just one of 1350 children in Derby who have some form of Special Educational Needs statement. His case is far from unique. There are too many examples of parents, and children, who have suffered as a result of Derby City Council’s confrontational approach to SEN provision, and significant delays in processing new and converted EHCPs This is not about funding – it’s about attitude, approach and leadership.
I have spoken to many parents who have had to become “activists” on behalf of their children. Many parents have had to spend considerable amounts of money to fight for their child’s rights. Danielle sums up it:
“If I hadn’t have made the decision to take control and find the funds to undertake the assessment of his needs I truly believe that we would have ended up fighting for a mental health bed in the long term and his one chance at education and a childhood would have been over.
Not everyone has the funds or support and energy to fight for their rights, what will happen to these children?”