Uncertain future in Wales of objective information, independent advice and impartial support and guidance for children and young people with additional learning needs and disabilities and their families.

SNAP Cymru is the leading provider of education advice services in Wales and holds the Community Legal Services Specialist Quality Mark (Education Advice) together with Investors in People (Bronze) and Investors in Volunteers.  SNAP Cymru has been providing information, advice and support services to families for over 25 years and received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Volunteering Award in 2012.

There is growing concern amongst families, professionals and the Third Sector about the future of support services for families across Wales at a time of significant changes in how children’s needs will be assessed and met in schools and other educational establishments in Wales.

SNAP Cymru Chief Executive, Denise Inger, reports that whilst the changes due in the new education legislation should support equality for all children in Wales, many young people and families will need objective information, independent advice and impartial support and guidance to navigate the revised processes and systems within and between schools, and local authority health, education and social care processes.  Families report that they feel anxious, need to fight through systems to support their children and have little confidence when dealing with professionals.

Denise Inger said

“The link between poverty and additional learning needs is clear; many children and young people experiencing the effects of poverty also have additional learning needs. Parents are often emotionally disabled when trying to deal with issues directly affecting their children and SNAP Cymru has found that parents can also have language or literacy difficulties themselves. It will be these children and young people who will be more disadvantaged from poor access to information for families to request preventative and crisis support services.  Research tells us of the high societal costs of children being out of education; we must support all children to reach their potential.

SNAP, like other third sector providers, are very concerned about continuous cuts in local authority funding and as a consequence of the cuts, that some local authorities are choosing to deliver ‘independent’ advice and support services in house rather than commissioning an external body such as SNAP Cymru. Our experience is that parents do not accept that ‘independent’ advice giving services provided by local authority staff are actually independent. There is a widespread view that an ‘in house’ service cannot be independent in the true sense of the word and is not effective for any party – local authorities, parents or children and young people particularly where there is a disagreement, this being one reason why SNAP Cymru was set up in the 1980’s. Local authority personnel are not in position to challenge the corporate local authority through the legal systems as they will in effect be challenging their employers! The point at issue here is, will parents have the confidence that the legal systems and processes such as school governance, SENTW and the Ombudsman, which were put in place to ensure fairness, be implemented in an objective, fair and unbiased manner?  Will negotiation and mediation to meet children and young people’s needs at the earliest time possible happen?  Or does this mean a backward step to the pre 1981 Education Act which was put in place to address the inequality for children with special needs in education?

The number of families coming to SNAP Cymru with issues about the education provision provided by schools more than quadrupled in the past two years and continues to rise.  SNAP Cymru supports and empowers families to work in partnership with schools to improve provision for children.  Without this independent service there is no one to support parties and help change happen.

Our case records show referrals concerning bullying have risen over 2 years by 150%, referrals around exclusion from school by 176%, whilst referrals around non-attendance and having no school to go to have risen by 236%.  All these issues have a grave impact on educational outcomes and are highly associated with future difficulties, including poverty.  Concerns around discrimination and failure to make reasonable adjustments have risen by a staggering 333%, whilst issues to do with therapies, health and social services provision have risen by 136%. New referrals from parents remained reasonably static but referrals from multi agency teams rose by 274% and local authority referrals rose by 276%. Referrals directly from individual health professionals rose from 31 to 131 equating to 337% while individual social workers made 91 referrals, an increase of 160%, and other voluntary organisations increased their referrals by 251%. Overall in the past two school years demand for SNAP services rose by 72% with the number and complexity of the issues being presented rising by 156%.  All this at a time when funding was being cut or, at best, frozen.

The White Paper ‘Delivering Learning for All’ did not make clear whether the principle of access to free independent and impartial advice, guidance and support for children and families will be preserved in the current and future educational reform.  There is a genuine problem with in-house support of a member of local authority staff supporting a family to take a SENTW claim against the local authority.   This is highlighted in the report on the Child’s Right to Appeal where it is shown to be not in the best interests of looked after children to have their social worker as their only way to challenge the local authority on issues over education as they both work for the same people. SNAP Cymru has every expectation that the Minister will see this as a necessary detail in the process of legislating but the way independent advice is provided is still a concern.

Some children currently have access to independent advocacy and the Independent Advocate often comes to SNAP Cymru to access free accurate impartial advice and guidance to ensure the best interests of children and young people. Children and young people living with kinship carers or adoptive parents may also require additional support or advocacy. Carers often come to SNAP Cymru to ensure the needs of their foster children are set out in an arena where, as foster carers, they can only offer information and have no right to challenge decisions made by local authorities.  The number of looked after children needing advice and guidance from SNAP Cymru doubled in the school year 2013-2014.

SNAP Cymru has faced its fair share of cuts over the last three years, the same as many other services including local authorities. We are all having to manage an extremely difficult phase of financial hardship. However, SNAP Cymru is extremely concerned about any further reduction in free services for families, particularly at this juncture of legislative change and reform. Pembrokeshire Local Authority has already given notice of termination of service and Carmarthenshire has cut the local service to one day a week which we believe will leave the South West corner of Wales without meaningful independent advice and impartial support and guidance for children and young people with additional learning needs and disabilities and their families. Negotiations are continuing across the rest of Wales we hope local authorities remain supportive of SNAP Cymru’s independent services despite their own financial restrictions.

SNAP Cymru will continue to seek support to be proactive, visual and accessible throughout Wales to work with all partners to achieve positive change and lift the bar for children and young people who experience poverty and struggle to reach their potential in education. SNAP Cymru’s vision is about partnership and equality, working across Wales to share good practice toward achieving fairness for all children, young people and families. SNAP Cymru urge the people of Wales to support free accurate independent information, advice, support and guidance for all children, young people and families in Wales”. Anyone wishing to support SNAP Cymru can  join us on Facebook and twitter.”

For further information:

Chief Executive Director, Denise Inger: denise.inger@snapcymru.org