Mum in Bury wins tribunal battle for specialist education for severely dyslexic daughter

Bethany Cook
Bethany Cook
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A mother has won a tribunal battle against Suffolk County Council to gain access to specialist education for her severely dyslexic daughter - her third legal victory against the authority.

Sam Cook, of Bury St Edmunds, fought the council for two years to gain a place at a specialist independent boarding school for her 10-year-old daughter Bethany.

Suffolk County Council ANL-141006-173324001

Suffolk County Council ANL-141006-173324001

The 45-year-old, who struggles with dyslexia herself as does her older son Connor, says the authority has failed her family for generations.

She was forced to go to a tribunal to gain a place for Connor at a specilaist school in 2008 and her mum had to take legal action to get her appropriate education.

Mrs Cook, of Oakes Road, said: “My children and I are all severely dyslexic but instead of support, we have had to fight the council every step of the way to an education.

“So far, my batting efforts against the council is three for three - twice for my son and once for my daughter. But why I have to fight at all is beyond me.”

“The system has failed me, failed my son and failed my daughter. But I won’t. And I will bat for any other family out there struggling to get the help they need for children with dyslexia.”

From when Bethany was only a young age, Mrs Cook suspected her daughter might be dyslexic.

“There were little red flags now and then and when she got older, I knew for certain that she had the same problems that I and my older son had. It tends to run in families and in mine, no one escaped,” she said.

Bethany was given a special educational needs assessment and a statement was issued, setting out the support that she needed.

Suffolk County Council though decided her needs could be adequately met by attending a local learning centre twice a week and a mainstream school the rest of the week.

Her mum said: “Over the course of two years, her learning progressed the equivalent of two months. She was slipping further and further behind. I knew where she needed to be, in a specialist school with a team of qualified teachers, and I was determined to get her there.”

Bethany had spent a brief trial period at Shapwick School, in Somerset, which is one of the country’s largest specialist schools for children with dyslexia.

Mrs Cook said: “She came home and told me that finally things made sense. I was so happy I could cry. When the local council told me she couldn’t go, my heart sank.”

She fought the council’s decision in court – a battle she initially lost.

“They claimed Bethany was too young to be away from home, yet continued to fail to provide the speech and language therapy she so desperately needed locally,” Mrs Cook said.

She made a further request for the council to fund a placement for Bethany at the school, which they refused again.

However, with the help of national law firm Simpson Millar, Mrs Cook appealed the council’s decision and won.

It carried echoes of her own experience and that of her son Connor, who is now aged 18.

The council refused to provide the funding for a space for him at a specialist school until a tribunal ordered it to in April 2008.

He is currently undertaking his BTEC Level 3 in Extended Diploma in Uniform Public Services at Shapwick and wants to be a police officer.

In 1986, her mum Alison Cornell similarly had to fight to get her specialist education.

Publicity from the Bury Free Press, finally helped secure her three years of multi-sensory teaching at Ravenscroft School, near Bath.

Mrs Cook said: “I didn’t get appropriate help until I was almost 16 when my mum went to tribunal and won. I was sent to Ravenscroft; a dyslexia specialist independent boarding school which has since closed, but that was too little, too late.

“I can’t believe that children with dyslexia are still having to fight for their education two decades later. For severely dyslexic children, mainstream education is a place to be bullied and left behind.”

Samantha Hale, the family’s lawyer from Simpson Millar, said: “Although local authorities are required by law to provide additional support to children with dyslexia, we are frequently asked to help secure suitable provision and placements in order for the child’s needs to be met.

“For parents it can be frustrating watching their child fall behind in mainstream education while the local council stonewalls their efforts to get additional help.

“Bethany clearly needs specialist provision and her brother, Connor flourished at Shapwick. It took a legal battle to get the same opportunity for Bethany but my fear is that many parents who aren’t as determined or resourceful as Sam might simply give up without a fight. Fortunately Sam did not.

“Nationwide, parents are frequently having to fight local councils for support, in particular for children and young people with dyslexia. Unfortunately, there isn’t always suitable provision available locally, which was the case for Bethany, so we are really pleased with the outcome for her.”

Mrs Cook said she misses her daughter but she knows she made the right decision.

“This is her future and I know it is the right thing for her. I dropped her off for her first day at Shapwick on September 6; the next day I was told she was walking around grinning like a Cheshire cat,” she added.

A council spokesman said: “Suffolk County Council does not comment on individual cases, but in response we would advise that wherever possible children with special educational needs who are in receipt of a Statement of Special Educational needs or an Education, Health and Care Plan should be supported to achieve their full potential in their local mainstream school. There are occasions where needs cannot be met locally and alternative arrangements need to be made.”