‘A divorce would be easier to go through, and probably cheaper!’ - Charity’s 30 years of helping parents of children with special educational needs

Norfolk SEN Network. Left to right, Annie Neri, Paul Coleman, Clare Chaplin, Pat Brickley (chairman)

Norfolk SEN Network. Left to right, Annie Neri, Paul Coleman, Clare Chaplin, Pat Brickley (chairman) and Raffaella Ouchai. Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

Navigating the ins and outs of the system when your child has special educational needs (SEN) can be daunting.

Norfolk SEN Network. Pat Brickley (chairman).

Norfolk SEN Network. Pat Brickley (chairman). Picture: ANTONY KELLY - Credit: Archant

But for 30 years one charity has been helping Norfolk parents find their way, and representing them when things may not go to plan.

The Norfolk SEN Network was set up by Pat Brickley, after she had struggled to get her three daughters into the same school in Trowse, because one of them had special educational needs.

Mrs Brickley, 67, said: 'It all started after the 1981 Education Act - when my daughter was going to school - gave parents the right to have their children with SEN in mainstream school.

'But over time we've gone from parents like me who wanted her three girls together, to it now being more difficult to get children into specialist schools.'

Red Nose Day/Evening New logo 2017. Photo: Graphics Unit

Red Nose Day/Evening New logo 2017. Photo: Graphics Unit - Credit: Graphics Unit

She said the charity helped with anything from applying for an education, health and care plan (EHC) - a report identify educational, health and social needs and the support needed, to supporting parents through tribunals with local authorities.

Since 2014, an EHC has been needed so young people can access support, replacing the old Statement of Need.

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But parents need to apply to the local authority to have an EHC assessment carried out, and Mrs Brickley said the vast majority of these were rejected.

If this happens, parents then have the right to appeal the decision at a tribunal, which the charity can also help with.

Mrs Brickley said: 'Even the most articulate of parents can struggle with tribunals, and if they got a lawyer it could cost up to £20,000. But we only charge £40 - £20 for membership and a £20 tribunal fee.'

One parent currently being supported by the charity is Clare Chaplin, from Norwich.

Her four-year-old son, Edward, has autism and Mrs Chaplin said she was due to hear in February about where he would go to school in September.

But she was still waiting to hear if he could go to a specialist school like she wanted, and turned to the SEN Network for support.

'All we are fighting for it to get our children the education they deserve,' she said.

'Pat steps in like a knight in shining armour, and helps explain the process, the next steps. .

'It's about having someone to talk to about what you're going through, Pat will support you in meetings, help with letters, or help get you to the stage where you can fight for your child to get the education they deserve in law. The fight is long and hard

Mother-of-four Annie Neri has two sons with special educational needs, nine-year-old Jude and six-year-old Zacky. She had been fighting to get Jude, who has severe dyslexia, assessed for an EHC and was initially rejected before turning to the network for help.

She said parents were forced into a position of going to a tribunal just to get their child assessed.

Mrs Chaplin added: 'As if life isn't hard enough when you have a complex needs child.

'A divorce would be easier to go through than this process, and it would probably be cheaper.'

Thanks to a grant of £500 from Comic Relief, the Norfolk SEN Network was able to fund a brand new website for the group, meaning more parents could get in touch and give the charity a greater reach.

Through the website, they can also take donations, which Mrs Brickley said was vital as they received no statutory funding and relied on fundraising.

This has also allowed the charity to extend its support to those over 16.

• Deserving community groups shared almost £40,000 in charity cash last year, distributed by this newspaper in association with the Norfolk Community Foundation and Comic Relief – and this year we've teamed up again. If your group would benefit from a grant of up to £1,000, more details will be announced on March 24.