Insights and Expert Advice From a SEND Tribunal Officer

1-2 minutes

In this blog, you will learn:

  • About the various roles and responsibilities of a SEND Tribunal Officer.
  • Ways to better support the needs of children with SEND and reform the SEND sector. 
  • How to find and apply for the best SEND Tribunal Officer jobs.

Within the intricate structure of a local authority SEND service, there are many professionals performing different roles and functions. One of them being a SEND Tribunal Officer. 

SEND Tribunal Officers manage and lead appeals, support witnesses and represent the local authority at hearings. They coordinate and lead the resolution of disputes between parents and local authorities regarding Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND).

Tribunal Officers are all experienced in SEND and work with parents and local authorities to ensure that legal processes are followed. We recently caught up with Iain Calderbank, a SEND expert with over 20 years experience working in the Special Educational Needs and Disability sector.

In the past, Iain has worked in a variety of roles including SEND Officer, SEND Team Manager and SEND Service Manager. He is currently working as a SEND Tribunal Officer managing over 25 on-going tribunal appeals. 

Iain has a proven track record of turning around underperforming teams. He has successfully managed a team of SEND Tribunal Officers and directed the teams’ management of SEND complex cases.

In this interview, you’ll discover how Iain has gone above and beyond in his career to achieve the best outcomes for children and young people with SEND.


What inspired you to start a career in local authority SEND?

My career in SEND started 23 years ago when I obtained an entry position within the Special Educational Needs team. Four months into the role, I received a Christmas card from one of the families I supported. I had managed to secure a placement for their child in a specialist school for children and young people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and the card read ‘It's nice to know there are people like you all year round and not just at Christmas’.

I still have that card saved at home to remind me of where my journey began. It was at that point when I realised the true importance of working in SEND and the real ability to make a difference to families lives.

My focus really changed at that point and I knew I had to set myself personal goals for achievement with the ultimate aim of having the biggest positive impact on children and young people that I could.


Tell me about your career journey so far. Did you experience any challenges or obstacles?

My initial challenge was that I never made it through college and therefore did not have the qualifications that would enable me to progress. Thankfully I was working at a local authority, where I spent the vast majority of my career at that point, and they supported my professional development, enabling me to complete my masters qualification part time whilst continuing in my SEND role in the Special Educational Needs team.

I then began to progress through various levels within SEND, including SEND Research and Development Officer, SEND Project Manager and Senior SEND Officer. This gave me an understanding of how each cog within the system works, where the most strategic pressure points are and where the biggest impact could be made.

Whilst I understood the pressures within the SEND field I was limited within my local government experience, having spent over 20 years with a single local authority. The interim world gave me the opportunity to further develop my understanding of how other local authorities function, whether there are differing regional or national challenges.

What I did learn was that in each local authority there are so many amazing and talented people who really hold children and young people at the heart of decision making.


What does your role as a SEND Tribunal Officer consist of?

My current role is working as a SEND Tribunal Officer, an area within the SEND field that has always been of particular interest to me. I manage a caseload of between 25 and 30 on-going tribunal appeals that cover lots of sections within the Education Health Care Plan (EHCP).

For those involved now, SEND tribunals are unfortunately quite lengthy processes with most appeals only receiving a hearing date approximately 45 weeks from the date it is submitted. The one benefit to this is that it allows a period of time where as a Tribunal Officer you can work collaboratively with the families to seek agreement on all parts where possible.

We are now seeing a larger number of appeals which reach agreement through consent orders. There are a small number of appeals whereby both parties are not able to reach an agreement and these then go to a tribunal hearing.

These hearings are usually heard by a judge and two panel experts and the vast majority are now heard virtually. This provides a slightly more relaxed environment for the family and all those involved whilst remaining very professional and focused.


Reform in the SEND sector continues to be a huge topic of discussion. How have things changed or progressed in the SEND sector since the start of your career?

There have been significant changes in SEND reform since I commenced my career. The 2001 SEND Code of Practice started a significant evolution which was later replaced by the 2014 SEND Reforms and the introduction of Education, Health and Care plans.

Whilst the latter has received criticism and the new Change Programme is considering its next stage of development, it has been positive in its attempt to bring together education, health and care systems for a more holistic approach to our children’s needs.

According to gov.uk, in 2001 there were approximately 242,000 children recorded as having a SEN Statement whereas 2024 sees 435,000 children now reported as having an Education, Health and Care plan. This represents 4.8% of our school population which is an increase from 4.3% of the previous year.

SEN support has also increased in the last 12 months from 13% of children to 13.6%. There is a recognition that - compared to the start of my career in 2001 - we are better at identifying needs. However the forecasted figures suggesting we could see as much as 10% of our school population with EHC plans by 2030 is concerning.

  

What challenges are the SEND industry currently facing?

It is evident that nationally the largest challenge that the SEND industry is facing is around sufficiency and placement planning. The demand for more specialist provision, whether that is special school places or specialist resourced provisions attached to mainstream schools, has risen at a pace - post COVID - that was not predicted.

The significant rise in children and young people with EHC plans has grown regionally between 52% and 75% in the last 6 years. This is highest in the North West which has seen a 74.9% increase whereas the West Midlands has seen a 50.5% increase. 

There is a need for highly specialist independent school placements but the demand for special school places has created a system whereby children are sometimes placed in the independent sector due to capacity challenges rather than need. Alongside all of this we have seen a rise in SEND Tribunals by 34% in the last year alone.

Additional data sets show us that nationally, the number of children and young people with EHC plans who are Not In Education, Employment or Training (NEET) has risen by 161%. The financial impact on all of this is astronomical, but it is significantly more concerning regarding those who are classified as Elective Home Educated (EHE). Parents/carers will often remind us that this is an outcome that they did not actively choose but were left with little or no option.


What changes would you like to see to better support the needs of children and young people with SEND?

The first question I think that needs to be determined is whether we truly understand our children and young people's needs. Things have changed post COVID and we really need to adapt quicker and start getting early intervention right.

I would prioritise the following areas within SEND:

  • An increased resource on the early identification of needs. Providing the right support at the right time, may see a high number of children not requiring an EHCP. Their needs could be met with an enhanced level of SEN Support, a resource that can be flexibly applied for and reviewed consistently by a multi-agency specialist team.  
  • We also see a high volume of placements breakdown following a period of transition. This is often for children who are at SEN support levels at the point of transition and therefore don’t receive an enhanced transition package. In addition to this, we need to think creatively about how we can adapt the environment to meet needs instead of trying to make the child adapt to the environment.
  • A data-led transformation approach with advanced data analytics can enable services to drive and deliver long term, sustainable and impactful changes.


What have you done to make positive change?

In addition to my SEND Tribunal role, I have dedicated my evenings and weekends to working in partnership with a Specialist Digital Consultancy company called Public Alchemy. The team have recognised that there are a large number of local authorities across England with a wealth of knowledge and success that can really drive positive change on a national level.

Public Alchemy has provided a national data dashboard that compares local authorities with similar demographics, rurality, deprivation and size. This approach allows local authorities to build a network and share areas of success whilst Public Alchemy supports local authorities to develop a multi-tiered analysis of their internal data.

This brings together Education, Health and Care systems to provide a solution focussed and informed approach to change.


What is the best part about working as a SEND Tribunal Officer?

The best aspect of working as a SEND Tribunal Officer is being able to support families in conflict resolution and ensure that children and young people receive the right support to achieve their best.

Whilst there may not always be agreement between the local authority and parents at the initial stage, a multi-agency professionals approach is able to provide an evidenced based approach to develop an Education, Health and Care plan that is both co-designed and deliverable in the most appropriate setting.


What have you learned so far in your career?

During my career I have learned that whilst I have worked in SEND for over 20 years, I am still learning every day. It is a very challenging service to work in but the rewards - when you see success in our young people - outweighs all and makes it worthwhile.

I have learnt that the most important part of effective casework is communication, and that when supporting children, young people and their families we need to have the ability to listen. Their lived experience is a huge cog within the wheel of SEND and starting to understand that can help to start the motion of change.

There are so many people who work incredibly hard in the industry every day and are often the unsung heroes. The challenges faced by ever increasing caseloads and the demand for more specialist provision to support children and young people, has made it hard for people to recognise the great work that they are doing. We all need to remember that the compliments that we receive are so powerful because it often means that we are making a difference.

 

Can you share any memorable success stories or moments from your career in the SEND industry?

One particular story sticks with me and it shows that sometimes impact isn’t a sprint but more of a marathon and one particular tribunal appeal I was managing spanned over 4 and a half years. I had moved from my first local authority and one day received a voicemail asking if I could call a parent whom I had supported just over 4 years ago.

I made the call back and immediately notified them that I had changed local authorities, as I didn’t want to be in breach of any information governance. The parent was fully aware of this and had taken days to track me down.
I had successfully negotiated a placement at the parental preference, for a phased transfer, in a local authority maintained special school. The parent called me to inform me that they had received a call from the Headteacher a few days earlier to notify them that their son had been chosen to be head boy for the school. 

The parent went on to tell me that their son said there is one person that we need to thank and that was Iain Calderbank. It had taken a number of days for the parent to track me down and that effort alone meant so much to me.

For the family, this was life changing and I was reminded of what a difference I had made. I have to be honest, there were a few tears in my eyes. We impact families every single day, sometimes we recognise it and other times we don’t, but every now and then we get those moments that remind us why we chose to work in SEND, or alternatively why SEND chose us.

 

How do you deal with stress or the pressures of your job?

There is no hiding from the fact that this is a highly pressured job that has become more challenging in recent years. Managing stress and pressure can be particularly difficult. I’ve learnt to manage it in different ways:

  • Maintain a work-life balance. If your battery is half empty this will affect your reliance and functioning. Take time to recharge yourself.
  • Re-evaluate negative thoughts. Focus on positive outcomes and the lessons you have learnt to adapt a more solution focused approach.
  • Take care of yourself. I work out most days to release those positive endorphins. I also play football as well as coach my son's football team.
  • Learn to recognise and appreciate success. These are what I often describe as the Michael Jordan moments. He may not have made every shot in his career but we remember all the ones that landed in the net and those are the moments that made a difference.


What advice would you give to someone new to the industry or considering a career as a SEND Tribunal Officer?

I would highly recommend anyone considering a career as a SEND Tribunal Officer to seek out shadowing opportunities. As the vast majority of SEND Tribunals are now held virtually they are less intimidating to both families and professionals.

Spend time developing your legal knowledge, there are lots of great courses out there, and if your strengths lie in effective case management or in the leadership of multi-agency meetings, this is an extended area of what you will already be doing.

  

What do you hope to contribute to the SEND field?

My ultimate goal is to have as big a positive impact on families and services as possible. I think this is very achievable within the role of SEND Tribunal Officer, but the biggest change can come from the data led service transformation work that I have been co-designing with Public Alchemy.

We can continue to work in isolation, with each and every local authority to start to build a network of success, a data led transformation system that can have a real impact on local, regional and national levels.


SEND jobs

If you’re searching for your next local authority SEND job, why not take a look at the latest vacancies, or simply upload your CV to be notified when a relevant position becomes available. 


Local authority recruitment services

As specialist local authority SEND recruiters, we support local authorities nationwide with their temporary, interim and permanent staffing needs. 

We can supply SEND staff for service redesign, tackling annual review backlogs and SEND/EHC Case workers to amend plans or hold annual review meetings. 

If you’re struggling to fill a vacancy, why not get in touch with one of our team to see how we can help?


Share your experience

Every individual brings a unique set of experiences, thoughts, and insights to the table. We believe in giving a voice to a community of professionals to inspire positive change and champion reform in the SEND sector.

If you work in the SEND sector and would like to share your own personal and professional experiences, we’d love to hear from you. Perhaps you have a different perspective, could offer a fresh angle, or want to challenge assumptions. 

Simply reach out to our Head of Content, Nicole Sherwood, to discuss a collaboration which makes your voice count.


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