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Interview with Laxmi Patel: Helping children with Cerebral Palsy get the right school placement
For many parents of children with special educational needs (SEN) the process of finding and obtaining a placement at the right school for their child can be confusing, frustrating and exhausting. It takes considerable time, paperwork, persistence and an understanding of the child’s educational needs and legal rights to secure adequate support to provide their child with access to meaningful education.
As specialists in helping families who are coping with a child’s disability, we understand the challenge this presents to parents of children with learning disabilities who are already struggling to meet their child’s physical and everyday needs whilst managing the demands of work and family life.
Whilst some parents can apply for and/or appeal their child’s Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) alone, others find that they need professional support. Boyes Turner’s dedicated team of SEN specialists are experts in helping disabled families secure the educational placements that they want and the support that their child needs. We asked SEN partner, Laxmi Patel, about her interest in SEN and how she and her team can help.
What is your role in the Education team?
I head up the Education team of Special Educational Needs (SEN) legal advisors. We advise exclusively on children and young adults (up to 25 years old) with special educational needs and/or disabilities who need help to secure a suitable school placement or adequate support for their education through an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).
It is a very niche area of law with not many solicitors advising in this field. We deal only with SEN and EHCPs (rather than everything else that could be classified as ‘education’), so we know our stuff when it comes to this area.
What motivated you to specialise in this area of law?
Prior to embarking on my legal career, I was a science technician in secondary schools and a school governor. During this time I saw first-hand the help that children with SEND received in school and the many shortfalls in the help that was offered. I noticed that a lot of schools did not have the time to provide adequate assistance and, as a result, the children struggled with their learning. I was also able to observe what could be achieved with good, timely support.
When I looked into an alternative career in law as a mature student, it seemed like a natural progression from my background in education. Once I had my law degree, I volunteered to give education advice for the National Autistic Society. The aim was to empower parents with correct legal knowledge and information to help them get the right support for their child’s education.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
It’s a highlight when we win a very complex case for a client who has been struggling, sometimes for years. In a case earlier this year we got a residential school placement for a 20-year-old young man who would have had to go into a care home if his case was unsuccessful. Instead, this placement will be life changing for him and will enable him to begin to build up the skills he will need to set him up for independent living. The successful appeal and the residential school placement has made a huge difference to the whole family. He’s making tremendous progress. It’s always very fulfilling when we hear from our client families how their child is progressing.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Whilst the team works hard to do the best they can for every family, not all cases will be successful. Cases are won on the evidence, not on the strength of feeling of parents. Cases can only succeed where we have enough evidence to meet the legal criteria. It is always difficult when I have to tell parents, who are going through a difficult time and may be convinced they are right, that their chances of winning an appeal are limited. The law states that the Local Authority (LA) only has to provide an ‘adequate’ education, not the ‘best’. You want to help everyone but sometimes it’s simply beyond your control and not possible.
What advice would you give to a parent who has concerns about their child’s education?
If a child has SEN then you don’t necessarily need to leap straight into an EHCP, unless something quite drastic has happened. Firstly, I would advise that they talk to the school to see what steps can be put in place to help their child and then keep things under review over a period of time. They can also encourage the school to seek external advice, if necessary.
If that doesn’t work, then they can request an EHC needs assessment. If the school are unwilling to do so, then the parents can submit the request for an EHC needs assessment themselves. The first thing the Local Authority will do, however, is write to the school for their views and comments, which is why it is more helpful to the process if they are willing to offer their support. I will get involved either at the assessment stage or, if the request is rejected, then I can assist the family with an appeal. I also advise families if the EHCP has been issued but has inadequate support or doesn’t name the school that the family want for their child.
If you are worried about your child’s special educational needs provision and would like to find out more about your rights and how we can help, contact us by email at email@example.com.
I try to assist lawyers by explaining, in clear and comprehensible terms, what the relevant issues are and where the strengths and weaknesses of the case lie.
DR PETER DEAR