Frequently asked questions from parents of children who have SEN are “Am I allowed to see information about my child?” and “How do I request information about my child?”.
These questions we can answer – and also offer some tips, having been through the process ourselves.
The legal stuff
Your right to information about you and your child is covered by the Data Protection Act https://www.gov.uk/data-protection/the-data-protection-act. You can ask for personal information which is called a ‘subject access request’. This is slightly different from a ‘freedom of Information’ request which is about more general information. The Information Commissioners Office https://ico.org.uk can give you more information about the law side of things if you are interested.
The practical stuff
Yes. Yes, you are ‘allowed’ to see information about you and your child that school, Local Authority (LA) and other bodies hold. Getting it can be another matter altogether though!
To request personal information you need to write and ask for it. This page: https://ico.org.uk/for-the-public/personal-information/ gives advice and a template letter. It will also give you information about what organisations are allowed to charge you and the timescales they should adhere to.
Generally speaking, you need to write to the Chair of Governors for a school request. For information from the LA there is usually a team within the LA that handles requests. Each LA website will have the details of who to write to. If you type ‘subject access request’ in the search-box you should the find email/address.
You are entitled to EVERYTHING! Emails, notes, files, minutes of meetings, reports and assessments. Information held on computer, information handwritten, information sent to other people, other teams and so on.
Schools should respond to the request within 15 days, it says so here: https://ico.org.uk/for-the-public/schools/pupils-info/
This page has template letters re what to do if you feel information has been withheld, or if there is no response within the 15 days timeframe (schools) 40 days (other organisations) https://ico.org.uk/for-the-public/personal-information/
There are some tips to consider.
- The organisation that has the information about you has a duty to keep safe, information about other people. Therefore they must check what they send to you to make sure details of other people are blacked out (redacted). Some of this is obvious. For example, if there is an incident report about your child and another, the name of the other child should be redacted.
- Some of what is redacted is open to judgement. For example, if a report says “Teacher Jones reported that all kids with dyslexia are lazy” then this should be redacted as it gives information of a personal nature about Teacher Jones (his personal beliefs that relate to him). However, if the same record said “Teacher Jones thinks that (your child) is lazy” then this professional view about your child and should be shared with you.
- Not all professionals have high standards of integrity… so it means you do need to be a bit of a detective. It is worth asking for the same information from all the people who are involved – so, for example, emails exchanged between school and the Educational Psychologist, and then request the same emails from that EP. You may get some information repeated but, also you are less likely to have missing information…… if you know what I mean.
- Include yourself in the request. It is possible that information has been written about you and (shock horror) it may not be nice. If you don’t include yourself in your request then they can legitimately redact it.
Experience and examples
- The first time I put in a subject access request the school just didn’t reply. Then I was given a few pages of information. The usual polite requests for a full disclosure failed to work. However, I found that an email to the Director of Children’s Services and my MP worked just fine: “It would appear from the emails received from the Chair of Governors that the school staff lack the knowledge and skills required to fulfil the request – please can you help them with this”. A nice big lever arch full of stuff arrived a little while later.
- Some people report that the contents of the file they receive back is very muddled. Pages mixed up, copied badly and so on. Some people feel that this is done intentionally. Certainly, in my experience, very little care was taken by one organization to make sure that I could read the documents easily.
- Missing information is often a problem. For example, emails will refer to meetings and key discussions that have been held, but a record of these may be missing.
- Unfair and inappropriate redactions can be an issue. For example, the LA sent me a copy of a very significant letter that school sent to them. However, this letter was not in the school disclosure. I asked the school to supply the letter…. which I then received and which leads me to another point…
- There were redactions in both copies of the letter. However, none of the redactions were the same. The school redacted information that they didn’t want me to see. The LA redacted information that they didn’t want me to see. I therefore had access to the entire content of the most appalling letter you can imagine. Which brings me on to the next section.
The Emotional Stuff
A small but import bit of advice – don’t ignore the potential emotional impact. We think that it can be reduced if you prepare a little. The sorts of things you receive in the file can really hurt:
- Seeing information about how difficult it is for your child to manage.
- Seeing evidence that your child’s needs are neither understood nor met too many times.
- Evidence that your child’s actual, real, needs are irrelevant to the organisation and that they really don’t want to understand.
- Reading really unkind and unprofessional text. Over and over. Stuff that is blatantly untrue, but because it is documented people assume it is fact.
- Knowing that you can do nothing about the above. In theory, there are ways to redress these inaccuracies but in real life, just like the complaints system, this system is horribly ineffective. It is probably easier to come to terms with the fact that ‘it’s not fair’ than it is to put things right.
Our advice would be to plan for the receipt of the information. Have a good friend available to help you go through it, join a forum that fits your needs and surround yourself with a few people that are endlessly patient and who ‘get it’. People who will understand and accept your reality unconditionally. Because you may need to go over and over it for a bit to help you process it all and that takes time and patient friends who care without judgement.
For more advice about this (and especially if your child may have or has dyslexia) then this group can also offer support information and additional template letter ideas. https://www.facebook.com/groups/dyslexiasupportUK/.
A post from Peter and Lily’s mum.
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