'Years of hell' - Family's legal fight to get son's special education needs met
PUBLISHED: 10:47 27 March 2019 | UPDATED: 14:59 27 March 2019
A family spent thousands of pounds fighting a legal battle to get their son's special education needs met after claiming Suffolk officials tried to block them "every step of the way".
Steph Flack and partner Darrell Brown felt so frustrated by Riverwalk special school in Bury St Edmunds they took Suffolk County Council (SCC) to court in an attempt to find better support for their 10-year-old son Lewis.
The couple claim Lewis suffered injuries at school and his care plan was not followed. Other parents have made similar complaints.
Having won their case to get Lewis sent to a new school, the couple criticised SCC and Riverwalk for making them take such drastic measures. Mr Brown, a mechanic, had to sell his tools to raise nearly £4,000 in legal fees.
January’s tribunal decision found Riverwalk was unable to meet Lewis’s needs and ordered he be sent to Acorn Park, Norfolk, for specialist teaching. The judge noted a regression in Lewis’s academic, social and emotional progress at the school.
Lewis has severe learning disabilities, autism and problems with communication and sensory processing. He can easily become distressed by his surroundings.
His parents, who live near Stowmarket, acknowledge Lewis’s needs are complex, but claim more help should have been given.
“Lewis would have been totally different if he’d had all the help he should have,” Ms Flack said. “People say I should be pleased with the decision but Lewis has paid a huge price. I feel I’ve failed my son because of this.”
Lewis, who started at Riverwalk in 2012, has his needs recorded in an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP). But Ms Flack said she faced “years of hell” getting the school to follow it.
She said she did not blame staff, who tried their best, but claimed SCC and management made their lives impossible.
The family said they struggled to get Lewis diagnosed with sensory processing disorder, and only succeeded when they found an organisation in Norwich, senSi to perform an assessment.
Ms Flack said the therapist diagnosed Lewis in just minutes. “Lewis was unresponsive,” she said. “It was like he had shut himself in a shell because his needs had not been met.”
After the diagnosis, Lewis’s EHCP was updated to include occupational therapy. The family felt he was going to get the care he needed. But after six months with no news, they learned SCC had lost his EHCP. “No one even knew where the legal document, which they should be following for my son, had gone,” Ms Flack said.
She claims the family still had to keep pressing for Lewis to receive the treatments he needed.
“They tired to fight us every step of the way,” said Mr Brown
The couple found Lewis’s PECS book – a large folder with pictures Lewis uses to communicate – had been missing for three years.
“It was like they had taken his voice away,” Ms Flack added. “No wonder he regressed and started smashing up our house because he was so frustrated.”
The family complained he was left lying on the floor, which gave him calluses.
The parents became so concerned they sent Lewis to school with a recording device. It picked up chaotic scenes with children screaming and staff telling them to “shut up”.
They decided to seek legal advice and found a solicitor who would take the case to tribunal.
“We’d lost trust,” said Ms Flack, “For years, we’ve been saying Lewis’s needs were not being met, we’ve been fighting to get them identified, but it feels like we’ve just been going round and round.”
Although Lewis has now started at his new school, he continued at Riverwalk for two months after the tribunal. During this time, governors told Ms Flack she could not visit, unless collecting Lewis. “It’s like I was made an example of to other parents,” she said, “If you speak out, this is what happens. I’ve tried to work with them and be polite, but they dragged me all the way to court.”
Ms Flack claims SCC backed the school because of the shortage of special school places. An SCC report in September found 300-400 more places were needed. Ms Flack said Riverwalk’s pupil numbers had increased by around a third since 2012.
Having already seen the positive effect of Acorn Park on her son, Ms Flack said she was relieved but frustrated it had taken so long.
“The first time we saw the new school we cried,” she said.
“Lewis used to come home in tears, now he’s giggling.”
Labour’s education spokesman at SCC, Jack Abbott said it was “hugely concerning” that a large number of parent and staff concerns were still being ignored by the council.
“Suffolk County Council need to start taking this situation seriously as staff and pupils alike are being put at risk by their inaction,” he added.
SCC’s education chief Gordon Jones said the council commissioned an independent safeguarding review of the school, which confirmed appropriate arrangements were in place to ensure children were safe and appropriately looked after. “The council’s standards and excellence team is working closely with the school to support its ongoing development,” he added.
Unions say staff have training concerns
Riverwalk staff have reported biting, hitting and hair-pulling by pupils and said not enough training was provided to deal with potential problems.
The complaints were raised at a meeting organised last month by unions, Unison, Voice, NASUWT and NEU, and attended by around 30 staff. The meeting heard headteacher Jan Hatchell agreed to meet the unions to discuss their concerns.
Unison organiser Stephen Higgins said: “Staff at Riverwalk feel let down by managers who are throwing them into dangerous situations without the proper training to deal with potential violence. It’s made all the worse when they pick up a cold at school and are given a written warning for taking time off.
Mr Higgins said teaching assistants felt they were not bring supported to deal with pupils’ complex needs. He said he was pleased manager had agreed to meet and hoped to build a “safe environment for staff and students alike”.
Riverwalk headteacher Jan Hatchell said the school and governors were aware a “very small number” of parents/carers had raised complaints, which had been addressed “promptly and professionally”.
Mrs Hatchell said a recent inspection recognised the “sound” safeguarding knowledge. The areas which the report identified to focus on were being followed “in line with our commitment to continuous improvement”.
“We continue to actively seek external funding to aid and expand our educational offering,” Mrs Hatchell added.
An independent report from experts in special schools praised the strong leadership “excellent teaching” and noted the “irresistible momentum of change”.
Mrs Hatchell said the school’s 140 staff were professionally managed and received regular and appropriate training.
“Staff are fully familiar with our policies, which we take extremely seriously,” she added.
A recent survey found parents and carers felt their children were safe, respected and liked attending Riverwalk.
“The results of our recent parent/carer survey reflect our progress in our determination to continue to move the school forward in a positive direction,” Mrs Hatchell said.
“Teaching is considered good and there is effective communication between class teachers and parents/carers.
“It is clear that Riverwalk is seen as a school that is approachable and willing to listen to parent/care concerns.
“We are pleased and proud of this feedback and thank our staff, parents/cares and stake-holders for their continuing commitment to and support for the school.”