If your child has a hearing impairment, how do you choose the right school? Sometimes the local authority will disagree over the pupil’s needs and the fees payable at a specialist school. In such cases, parents can appeal to a Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) Tribunal, and it’s here that we are often called upon to act as expert witnesses.
The main participants
The Tribunal Panel normally consists of three members who listen to the evidence and compare the benefits and costs of each side’s proposals. Each party can put forward three Witnesses, such as a head teacher, audiologist or speech and language therapist.
The role of an acoustics consultant is to assess the school rather than the child. We present independent expert advice and our legal duty to the tribunal overrides any obligation to our clients. Of course we want to help the parents, but sometimes our evidence may not support our their case. If this is so, we explain this as early as possible to the parents.
The evidence on acoustics
The main evidence an acoustician draws up is whether a school provides an acoustic environment for the child to communicate effectively. Measurements are taken in typical conditions and in a cross section of classrooms. At Adrian James Acoustics, we normally take three types of measurement: room acoustics, ambient noise levels in unoccupied rooms, and sound levels in use. We may also consider sound insulation.
Tribunal members have to read a lot of information so we present clear and concise evidence. Apart from our measurements, the report includes conclusions and recommendations relevant to the specific child. We also need to understand the reports of other witnesses such as the audiologist. Just as the range of hearing loss varies widely, so does the requirements of each child. Our report also differentiates between known fact, information gathered from other sources, and our own professional opinion. If there is uncertainty about an issue, we make this clear.
The tribunal hearing can be surprisingly informal, but the panel often asks shrewd questions so it is essential to have seen the reports of the witnesses on the other side and have discussed them with the client. Sadly, there is no requirement for all witnesses to meet beforehand and issue a joint statement. The process is an expensive one for parents and often a settlement is only reached at the eleventh hour.
Despite all this, we have recently seen some positive developments in enlightened local authorities. There is a growing realisation that the money spent in losing tribunals and educating deaf children outside the state system would be better spent in building new local provision with acoustically excellent classrooms and smaller class sizes. We sometimes include recommendations or suggestions for improvements in our reports and following recent reports to tribunals, several schools have installed acoustic treatment which has benefited both deaf and hearing pupils.
Our hope is that in ten years’ time there will be enough such places and SEND tribunals for hearing impaired students will be unnecessary. Meanwhile we strive to make an imperfect system operate as well as possible.