Over the past few months, parents in Sheffield and South Yorkshire have been airing their frustration about several long-standing issues, such as the timeliness and quality of EHC plans, long waiting lists for therapy services, and a lack of special school places. There have been petitions, protests, newspaper columns and social media campaigns.
What is our forum’s role in this? Parent carer forums were set up to work in partnership with their local authorities, education settings, health providers and other partners, with the aim of ensuring that the services they plan and deliver meet the needs of disabled children and their families. Forums act as a “critical friend” – voicing the concerns of parent carers, and working with providers to improve services. They are independent organisations and are not part of the local authority.
Our parent representatives work hard to gather the views of parent carers from all sections of the community, and they attend dozens of meetings every year where they feed back these views. This often involves very challenging discussions – but these happen behind closed doors, and you won’t read about them in your local paper or on Facebook. Why not? Because we can only work with council officers, head teachers and other professionals if they trust us, and share their plans with us at an early stage, when it is still relatively easy to make changes. They will only do that if they know that we will respect confidentiality. Most of the information we learn at these meetings, however, is not confidential, and we do our best to share it with parents through our newsletter, ebulletins, website and Facebook page.
Sometimes our attendance at meetings is misinterpreted, both by officers and by parents. Attendance does NOT mean agreement. We often raise objections in meetings, and we don’t always support the decisions taken by the groups we attend. But that’s part of the democratic process.
We completely understand parents’ anger and frustration about the slow progress in addressing the issues we have been raising – all of our trustees, volunteers and workers are parents of disabled children, and these issues affect our own families, too. But we will keep raising them, and speaking up for our children and families. We have been doing this for nine years, and we will not go away.
When doing so, it is important that we lobby the right people. Schools, health services and local authorities have not been given enough funding to provide our children with the support and services they are legally entitled to. This is an issue of national policy, which we are trying to influence through our umbrella organisation, the National Network of Parent Carer Forums, which has regular meetings with the Department for Education and the Department of Health.
We encourage individual parents and parent support groups to keep telling us about the issues they encounter. We log, collate and anonymise them, identify trends and report them to the local authority and other services. We also arrange meetings where parents can talk to officers directly; for example, we hosted a workshop that brought together a parent protest group and senior officers, and both have agreed to keep talking – the next meeting is in October. We will also submit parents’ feedback to Ofsted and CQC inspectors when they come to inspect Sheffield’s SEND services.
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