Special needs case set for Lords appeal

Roger Pearson on how the right to send special needs children to the school of their choice is being challenged by Harrow Council.

The right of parents of children with special educational needs to specify where they want their children schooled will be probed in a major test case now heading for the House of Lords.

Harrow Borough Council has won leave from the Law Lords to challenge a signpost ruling made by the Court of Appeal in March this year. The ruling centred on the rights of the parents of a five-year-old girl to have her educated in neighbouring Hillingdon.

The case raises questions about how far local authority financial resources should determine such matters.

The child in question has learning difficulties and is wholly dependent on others. Her mother wanted her to attend a special needs school in the Hillingdon area.

But a special educational needs tribunal backed Harrow's refusal of that application, ruling that the estimated cost of between #11,000 and #12,000 would not be efficient use of Harrow resources. This was backed by Mr Justice Moses in the High Court who dismissed the mother's appeal.

But in March Lord Justices Brown and Otton and Sir Christopher Staughton ruled that the council's stance was wrong. The appeal judges said Harrow's actions could lead to local authorities discriminating between special needs children and other children.

They said the resources of the authority where the child lived and the authority in which the proposed school was based should both be taken into account. The Court of Appeal judges said it would otherwise be impossible for such parents to choose a school outside the area in the same way as those whose children did not have special needs.

They ruled that Parliament, in drawing up the 1996 Education Act, had intended that the parents of all children, whatever their needs, should be allowed to express a preference for a school for their child and that the efficiency of the use of the financial resources of the home authority was not the sole factor in the equation.

No date has yet been fixed for Harrow's House of Lords appeal, but it is likely to be heard early next year.