A Parent’s Experience

Jessie Hewitson

Author of How to Raise a Happy Autistic Child and deputy editor of The Times and The Sunday Times Money sections

I am the mum of an autistic 11 year old who started secondary school this week. Starting secondary school is a major event for anyone, but particularly so when you’ve been locked in a legal battle with your local authority to decide where they are going to school, and you only find out the outcome two weeks before they start.

Our local authority – Haringey – initially placed him in a 10-form entry mainstream state secondary where staff used megaphones to coral pupils at lunchtime. He has just left a one-form mainstream primary – I’m told it’s the smallest primary school in London – with full-time TA support and even then he found it a struggle.  

No one thought the 10-form entry secondary school was suitable. I doubt even Haringey did, it was just the cheapest option. And so we hired a lawyer and an educational psychologist and readied ourselves to go to court.  £20,000 later my son is going to a special school that is right for him; the council conceded just before the tribunal date, presumably because they knew they didn’t have a case, they were just taking it as far as they could in the hope we’d run out of money.

I feel many things about our experience, but mainly I’m left with survivor’s guilt. We managed to get our lovely, anxious, bright autistic son into a special school that is right for him – but what about the other kids like him? What about the parents who have no choice but to send their children to schools that harm them? 

For those that don’t know what it’s like dealing with a council’s Special Educational Needs department, where the staff decide where your child is going to school and what provision they are getting, some explanation. It’s a constant battle with people who don’t play by the rules and who will tell you black is white. It’s constant gaslighting, because were they to articulate the reality of your child’s needs they would then have to pay to do something about it. We recently had a SEN case manager who was professional and responsive – I couldn’t believe it when she answered my emails! –  but she didn’t last long.

For our case, Haringey paid for the most senior lawyer in an external law firm who probably charged around £500 an hour to represent them. We spent half our life savings to see the case through – and we won’t see any of it back as the tribunal judges can’t easily award costs.It’s often only at court that you can get them to follow the law. Councils lose 9.5 out of 10 cases – such is their blatant disregard for the law, leaving you to wonder what other laws are as acceptable to break as the ones made for vulnerable children. Parents sell their homes, and spend all their savings  to get the support their child was always entitled to. 

Unbelievably, there are people who are in a worse situation. Those who don’t have a house or savings, or the parents of kids whose parents trust what their council is telling them, or who listen to the  school, where staff are trained by the council to tell parents things which aren’t true about the council’s obligations. They will lose out. And in this context losing out can mean your child is left broken by the education system. 

This is why this campaign is so important. It’s about the future of vulnerable children who are being badly let down by a Department for Education that is looking the other way when laws are routinely broken. It’s to help the children of parents with less money and privilege navigate this complex, awful system and to try and change it.