THE parents of an autistic schoolboy say they hope Flintshire County Council will learn from its mistakes after a ‘landmark’ tribunal ruling.
Stephanie and Martin Burton, from Saltney, took legal action against the authority after claiming County Hall education chiefs tried to ignore their wishes and send their gifted son – who passed his maths GCSE aged eight – to a different school.
A Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales (SENTW) ruled on February 10 that the council unlawfully discriminated against the boy, now 12, directly contrary to the Equality Act 2010.
Stephanie and Martin – who say they have been ‘put through hell’ – applied for their son to go to a grammar school in Wirral, where they believed he would be able to achieve his academic potential.
The couple met council staff in September 2010 to discuss what they wanted to happen, but the authority wanted the former Saltney Ferry Primary School pupil to go to a specialist unit at Argoed High in Mynydd Isa instead, which would have been cheaper.
Maths teacher Stephanie said: “I took my son to the Argoed for a visit, and they were very friendly.
“They obviously care a great deal for their autistic students, but we decided it wasn’t right for our son.”
Stephanie and Martin filled in their preference form – choosing the grammar school – and sent it to the council’s education department.
“We didn’t think there would be a problem,” said Martin.
In December 2010 council officers held a behind-closed-doors meeting and decided Stephanie and Martin’s son should go to the Argoed.
And Stephanie said she and her husband were not told what the panel decided.
“The first I heard of their decision was the local authority phoning me up in February 2011 to say they had chosen Argoed,” she told the Chronicle.
“I was shocked and angry. We applied immediately to SENTW to oppose the decision.”
Stephanie added: “We didn’t even get a chance to discuss it with them after they made the decision. They left us with no option but to appeal.
“We were also aware that there was a possible breach of the Equality Act, which had just come into force, so we lodged a disability discrimination claim as well.”
At another closed meeting in March 2011, the council again decided Stephanie and Martin’s son should go to the Argoed.
The couple sought the advice of Alyn and Deeside MP Mark Tami, who took up their case.
“We didn’t know why they were still refusing to let him go to the grammar school,” said Stephanie.
“They never gave us an adequate explanation. They kept telling us he would not cope in secondary education without a unit.
“Lots of other children from Flintshire go to this grammar school.”
Finally, in July last year, Flintshire County Council agreed to let Stephanie and Martin’s son go to the school of their choice.
Martin said: “Our poor son had watched other children in his class preparing to go to secondary school, while he hadn’t known where he was going or what would happen.
“It’s hard enough for an ordinary child, but for a child with autism it’s a nightmare.”
The couple’s son has since settled in at the school after passing the entrance exam and starting in September.
Stephanie told the Chronicle: “We have never seen him so happy. He fits in so well and plays with the other children and has made some good friends.
“He even came joint top of his class recently. We are so proud of him.”
The tribunal ruled Flintshire County Council had discriminated against the Burtons’ son by not letting him go to his preferred school. A subsidiary claim of indirect discrimination was dismissed.
The panel of three legal experts also said the authority has to make changes to its policies and practices as well as apologise to the Burton family.
Stephanie said: “We hope Flintshire will be deterred from doing this to another family. No-one should have to go through this hell.”
Stephanie and Martin said they are glad the tribunal acknowledged the suffering the family went through.
“We have had to fight hard to get our son’s needs recognised and provided for,” she said.
“It has cost us thousands of pounds and countless hours researching the law as we couldn’t afford a solicitor.
“The work a tribunal needs is so substantial we have had to spend our evenings and weekends writing statements instead of playing with our children.
“We have got what our son needed – but at a huge cost.
“We want Flintshire to change their practices so other parents never have to suffer as we did.”