Families face special educational needs help ‘postcode lottery’

Families of children with special educational needs are facing a postcode lottery to get extra help at schools, BBC 5 live Investigates suggests.

Figures from 125 councils in England and Wales obtained by a Freedom of Information request found a huge range in responses to assessment requests.

On average half of all requests by parents to get help are turned down.

The Local Government Association says standards are clearly set to try to meet the needs of each child.

Around one in five children in England and Wales has special educational needs (SEN) and is eligible for extra help at school.

The first step to getting help, over and above what can normally be provided in mainstream schools, is to request an assessment from the local education authority.

Refused help

A Freedom of Information Request relating to applications for an initial assessment found when parents asked for an assessment they were on average more than twice as likely to be turned down as a school or professional making the request.

BBC 5 live Investigates contacted local education authorities in England and Wales and of the 125 which responded with figures from 2013/2014 – the last full academic year – the refusal rate for schools or professionals was 22%, but for parents it was 50%.

There were wide variations between local authorities. Southampton City Council turned down all 16 parental requests it received.

But the neighbouring city of Portsmouth, which received 13, refused only one.

16 other local education authorities rejected more than 75% of parental requests.

‘Down to money’

Angi from Southampton asked for an assessment for her 14-year-old daughter, who is on the autistic spectrum.

Both the school and a report from an educational psychologist supported her application, saying she should have dedicated one-to-one support. But she’s been refused twice.

“My daughter has not been in school full-time for over a week. She is a bright girl but she is feeling very low,” Angi said.

“I firmly think it is down to money. I think the council are trying to squeeze out as many requests as they can.”

But while Southampton turned down 100% of parental requests, it only refused 12% of all applications – below the average.

A spokesperson for the council said: “Our processes follow the code of practice, which gives guidance to schools, colleges, local authorities and others on how they must carry out their duties under the new law.”

Other authorities such as Liverpool and Southwark turned down more than half of all the requests while Warrington and Wolverhampton refused just 1%.

Southwark Council said: “Southwark is renowned for excellent schools and support for children with special educational needs.”

Liverpool City Council insisted each application is carefully assessed by an expert panel and that the authority “operates an early intervention policy to support schools… avoiding the need for parents and carers to go through a bureaucratic and lengthy process.”


Very few parents appeal if an assessment is turned down but for those who do the success rate is high.

Eleanor Wright is a lawyer and now works as the co-ordinator for the charity SEN SOS which advises parents on how to get through the assessment process.

She says they are increasingly seeing unlawful reasons for education authorities refusing assessments.

“They will say there was no evidence provided by the school, or the wrong sort of evidence was provided, when it is down to them to get that evidence – they hope they won’t be challenged,” she said.

“Parents have the greatest struggle, they do not go into this lightly – they are worried about their child being labelled, I do not see frivolous requests.”

For those that do get help the results can be dramatic. David Neal challenged North Somerset Council over its provision for his severely dyslexic daughter Grace, 13.

He did all his own legal work and the council conceded before it got to appeal. Grace was given a place at a specialist dyslexia school.

“Before she used to cry about going to school, it was a battle to get her to go, she had no confidence.

“Her new school says she is one of the most profound students it has had. But the school has transformed her. They’ve made her head girl.”

Minister for children and families Edward Timpson said reforms brought in last year ensured support fitted in with the needs of families, “resulting in a simpler and more joined-up system over time”.

“We have invested £30m in independent supporters to ensure help is there for families who want an EHC (Education, Health & Care) plan,” he said.

“Many families are already telling us they are beginning to notice a positive difference.”