‘Anecdote rich but data poor’: The exponential growth of mediation in a shadowy corner of administrative justice

A little-known fact is that mediation is alive and well, indeed thriving, in administrative justice in England. This is in the area of special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), in which, under the Children and Families Act 2014, mediation has been given unprecedented prominence as one of the mechanisms for addressing challenges to local authority decision-making. This post considers the exponential growth in mediation since 2014 and suggests that in light of this growth, it is essential to improve the data collected and published on how such challenges are addressed in both mediation and the tribunal.

Background

The term ‘SEND’ refers to special educational needs and disabilities and the identification of and support for children and young people with these needs from birth to age 25. This is the age group covered by the statutory framework in England under the Children and Families Act 2014 (CFA) and the 2015 SEND Code of Practice (2015 CoP).[1] SEND disputes relate to decisions made by local authorities (and to some extent Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs), where health provision is involved) regarding identification of education, health and social care needs and the provision of support to meet those needs.

Decisions made by local authorities on SEND provision reflect many aspects of concern in administrative justice. These include the quality of initial decision-making, the accountability of public bodies, human rights considerations in the delivery of public services, and mechanisms by which people can challenge and appeal such decisions, all of which must be considered in the current context of severe budget pressures on schools and local government and concerns about efficiency.[2]

As part of a knowledge exchange project I have been conducting in connection with the UK Administrative Justice Institute at the University of Essex, I have explored what we know and what we don’t know about the mechanisms for resolving disputes about SEND. The project is concerned with young people’s participation in SEND dispute resolution, and it has a particular focus on mediation because of the parties’ distinctive role as decision-makers in mediation, which is quite different from their role in tribunal hearings or ombud complaints.

A complex landscape

The disputes and complaints landscape related to SEND is complex and multi-faceted, with a range of complaint mechanisms for different types of disputes operated by different public bodies and private actors (schools, local authorities, Secretary of State, the NHS, the SEND Tribunal, mediation, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, judicial review). Other public bodies with a role to play in SEND complaints include the Children’s Commissioner and Ofsted, both of whom have recently engaged with the issue of SEND in relation to school exclusions. The landscape is set out in a two-page table in the SEND 2015 Code of Practice (pp.246-247).

Unresolved disagreements and complaints relating to requests for statutory education, health and care (EHC) needs assessments and EHC Plans; changes to EHC Plans; and decisions on placement (the education setting named in the EHC Plan) can be lodged as appeals to the First-Tier Tribunal (SEND). The Ministry of Justice suggests that the year-on-year increase in appeals to the SEND Tribunal (27% increase in 2016-17) is due to the expansion, under the Children and Families Act, of the criteria of SEND to cover from birth to 25-year-olds in education (excluding higher education) and to cover health and care as well as education.[3]

Most pupils with SEND do not have statutory EHC Plans, for which the local authority is responsible, but their needs and provision are determined by schools and colleges under what is called SEN Support. Complaints about SEN Support are not considered by the Tribunal but can be considered through complaints procedures of schools and colleges, and ultimately by the Secretary of State. This is an area identified as a gap for which no effective independent redress mechanism exists.

Other routes for disagreements and complaints about SEND include the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO) for complaints about local authority social care and education; and judicial review for claims relating to a local authority’s failure to make provision set out in an EHC Plan. In 2017, the LGSCO published a report on local authority failures identified in the first 100 complaints it has considered about EHC Plans. It upholds 80% of the complaints in this area, far higher than the average uphold rate across its jurisdiction.

Polycentricity of SEND disputes

My experience as a SEND mediator reflects that although the dispute triggering the mediation is a challenge to a decision by the local authority, one that can be appealed to the tribunal, there are other disputes at play, including between parents and schools, parents and young people, local authorities and schools, local authorities and CCGs. The disputes in SEND are often polycentric, meaning they involve a number of parties with a range of interests and needs. Teachers can feel under pressure to deliver particular outcomes without adequate support or resources. They often feel parents make unreasonable demands about the type or level of support the pupil needs. In such cases, schools and teachers may neglect to involve parents or pupil in the planning of support. It is not uncommon for parents of pupils with SEND to be banned from school premises if they are considered troublesome, just as pupils with SEND are often excluded (formally or informally) for what is considered bad behaviour. Parents might become overprotective of their children, and their requests for support can clash with their child’s need to develop independence and social skills; this can arise in particular where parents are requesting transport to take their child to school or one-to-one learning support within the classroom.

Cost is a constant source of tension: parents might perceive that appropriate provision involves delivering a specialised programme or sending the child to a residential school; the local authority might consider that providing these options compromises their duty to all children and young people in their area and their responsibility to make efficient use of public funds. In this respect, other parents and pupils within a wider community may become stakeholders with interests in the outcome of a specific case in which they are not involved. The fact that resources for SEND provision are capped public funds means that what are seemingly ‘private’ issues involving one family can become ‘public’ issues with wider ramifications.

The place of mediation

The inherent tension between effectiveness and efficiency, a tension that features in many aspects of administrative justice, and the polycentric nature of these disputes make mediation particularly appropriate because of its ability to accommodate many voices and perspectives. Unlike mediation in civil and commercial disputes, in the SEND context mediation does not prioritise settlement but instead prioritises collaborative problem-solving in a way that allows for expression of the parties’ different, and often conflicting, needs and interests. Settlement in the conventional sense happens (eg a local authority agreeing to a request to assess or to issue an EHC Plan) – this is suggested from the statistic of three-quarters of mediations that do not go on to appeal. But without better data we can’t conclude that those cases that mediate and do not go on to appeal are ‘resolved’.

Although mediation doesn’t result in judicial determinations in the way a tribunal does, it takes place in the shadow of the legal framework, taking account of statutory rights and obligations in relation to SEND, equalities and human rights. Mediation is open and holistic as a process in a way that allows parties to explore wider issues, ones that gave rise to the complaint as well as ones that influence the sustainability of any agreed outcomes. In that way, mediation is not an alternative to tribunal or the ombud in the conventional sense but is complementary to those processes and is, with them, part of the wider accountability network in SEND.

Mediation has been part of the SEND framework in England since the 2001 Code of Practice articulated the importance of independent disagreement resolution for these disputes and the duty of local authorities to make resolution services available. Details of mediation requirements and procedures are set out in the Special Educational Needs and Disability Regulations 2014. It is now a requirement, in all but a few exceptions, for parents or young people to consider mediation before appealing to the tribunal. Parents and young people who wish to appeal to the tribunal are required to obtain a mediation certificate (other than in cases involving only educational placement). The certificate is obtained after receiving information on mediation from a mediation adviser (who might also be a mediation provider) or after mediating; the aim is to give parents and young people the opportunity to consider attempting to reach a mutually acceptable agreement through mediation before going to appeal.

Whether or not to use mediation is voluntary for parents and young people; those who decide not to mediate following a Mediation Information and Advice Session (MIAS) will be issued with a certificate right away, which will allow them to lodge an appeal (within the deadline, which is either two months from the date of the local authority decision or 30 days from the date of the certificate, whichever is later). Those who agree to attempt mediation will be given a certificate following the mediation, which allows them to lodge an appeal (should one be considered necessary) within 30 days of the date of the mediation. If a parent or young person wants to use mediation, the LA is required to attend and to send someone with decision-making authority. This is the first use of compulsory mediation in the UK and presents a challenge to one of the fundamental principles of mediation – that it is voluntary for all parties.

Increase in mediation

There has been a steep increase in the number of mediations since the Children and Families Act 2014, from 75 in 2014 to 2,497 in 2017, as shown in the table below.[4]

 

Number of mediations, England

(Dept for Education Statements of SEN and EHCPs statistical releases 2015-18[5])

Year

Mediations

2014 75
2015 1,400
2016 1,886
2017 2,497

This increase has occurred without any parallel increase in scrutiny of the mediation process, aside from the recent development of SEND-specific mediator practice standards.[6]. Other reasons to focus on mediation include the confidentiality of the mediation process and the distinctiveness of the parties’ role in mediation, which goes beyond attending or giving views and requires active decision-making.

Of the 2,497 mediation cases, 630 (25.2%) were followed by appeals to tribunal during 2017 (and others mediated in 2017 would have been followed by appeals in 2018). This is similar to the previous three years, in which roughly one-quarter of mediation cases were followed by appeals. No other data are published by the Department for Education on mediations, and mediation providers do not routinely publish data on the cases they handle.

There were more SEND mediations conducted than SEND tribunal hearings (2,497 mediations in 2017 compared with 1,599 SEND tribunal hearings in 2016-17).

SEND Tribunal appeals, England 2016-17[7]
Appeals registered Appeals decided Appeals decided in favour of appellant Disability discrimination appeals
4,725 1,599 1,418 132

In 2016-17, 4,725 appeals were registered in relation to SEN, an increase of 27% when compared to the prior year. The number of appeals disposed of was 4,387, of which 1,599 (36%) were decided by tribunal (the majority, 64%, being withdrawn or conceded). The statistics suggest a high percentage of tribunal appeals withdrawn or conceded before hearing and a high rate of success at hearing by parents in certain types of appeals. Of the decided cases, 1,418 (89%) were in favour of the appellant.

Conclusion

The knowledge exchange project A Place at the Table has illustrated the data gap in the area of SEND disputes, which has been described as an area that is ‘anecdote rich but data poor’. This is not particular to SEND; despite recent attempts to open up centrally held data and a commitment from HMCTS and the Ministry of Justice to work collaboratively with researchers, administrative data can be difficult to access and understand, and there is a shifting landscape in administrative data sources. Also, government departments take different approaches to collecting and releasing data.

How can we increase the quantity and quality of data collected and published for both mediation and tribunal cases? The Department for Education could work jointly with the Ministry of Justice to review the data collected and published and consider how to improve the statistics. This will in turn help with scrutiny of how these mechanisms are working, especially given the exponential rise in mediation numbers in the past four years. A first step might be to undertake a data audit of what information is collected on SEND complaints and disputes.

[1] For a comprehensive overview of legislative and policy developments, see Harris, N (2018), ‘Autonomy, Rights and Children with Special Needs: A New Paradigm?’, Working Paper 2, Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity, University of Edinburgh, University of Manchester, http://www.docs.hss.ed.ac.uk/education/creid/Projects/39_ii_ESRC_SENChildren_WP_2.pd f. For a comprehensive overview of procedures for complaints and dispute resolution, including mediation, for disabled children and young people, see Chapter 11 of Broach, S, Clements, L and Read, J (2016), Disabled Children: A Legal Handbook, 2nd edition, Legal Action Group, available at http://councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk/help-resources/resources/disabled-children-legal-handbook-2nd-edition.

[2] See, eg, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (2018), Under Pressure – the impact of the changing environment on local government complaints; National Audit Office (2018), Financial sustainability of local authorities 2018.

[3] Ministry of Justice, ‘Tribunals and Gender Recognition Statistics Quarterly, July to September 2017’, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/667449/tribunal-and-GRC-statistics-Q2-201718.pdf

[4] Department for Education (2018), ‘Statements of SEN and EHC Plans, England‘, SFR May 2018.

[5] Available for years 2014-2017 at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/statistics-special-educational-needs-sen#statements-of-special-educational-needs-(sen)-and-education,-health-and-care-(ehc)-plans

[6] Mott McDonald, Department of Health, Department for Education (2018a), ‘Professional Standards for SEND Mediators‘.

[7] Ministry of Justice, Tribunals and Gender Recognition Statistics Quarterly, July to September 2017.