As part of IPSEA's 40th anniversary, we have collected stories from people who have had personal experiences with IPSEA. 

These stories not only provide valuable insights into the diverse challenges families encounter while navigating the SEND system, but also offer a glimpse into the remarkable individuals who have played a pivotal role in shaping our organisation.

Discover more people of IPSEA

We were delighted to speak with John Wright, IPSEA’s first CEO, to learn more about IPSEA's founding and early years. The below is taken from an interview with John. 

When and why was IPSEA formed? 

Well, it wasn’t that someone had the ‘good idea’, more a case of someone being in the right place at the right time and, I guess, having the right background… 

IPSEA was originally called IPSEE – Independent Panel of Special Education Experts – and was a project of the Children’s Legal Centre. Set up in 1983, it consisted of around a dozen educational psychologist volunteers who were willing to provide free second opinions on the provision children with learning difficulties and disabilities would need in order to be successfully supported in mainstream schools. The rationale was that, as placement decisions for children – mainstream school or special school – were made by educational psychologists, parents wishing to challenge a decision (by appeal to the Secretary of State for Education) would need to have their own, independent educational psychologist’s report. However, IPSEE was not neutral on the issue of mainstream vs special school; its aim and that of its volunteer psychologists was specifically to support parents appealing against special school placements and for integration (inclusion now being the more commonly used term). Therefore no support was offered to parents attempting to achieve a special school placement for their child. That was simply not IPSEE’s purpose, and inclusion was regarded by the Children’s Legal Centre as a ‘human rights’, rather than an ‘educational’, issue. 

Looking back, it is ironic that the decision-making process in relation to school placement changed in the year IPSEE was established due to the implementation of the 1981 Education Act. Thus, from 1 April 1983, educational psychologists ceased making placement decisions for children with ‘special educational needs’ (SEN), to use the terminology of the new legislation. Instead, local education authorities (LEAs) made placement decisions, having regard to parental preference, the efficient education of other children with whom a child with SEN would be placed and the efficient use of resources. Educational psychologists’ advice was still sought by an LEA when assessing a child, along with that of other relevant professionals, but psychologists were no longer making the decisions. 

Although a small number of parents did contact the Children’s Legal Centre for IPSEE’s help during its early years, and were referred on to a panel member for a second opinion, the pattern of decision-making which emerged through the mid-1980s saw LEAs mainly relying on the ‘efficient use of resources’ argument, as the law allowed, when deciding school placement and were as likely to disregard educational psychologists’ advice as parents’ preferences. 

When did you join IPSEA and what was your role? 

I joined IPSEA, or IPSEE as it was then known, in the late 1980s as ‘Administrator’, taking over the role of the Children’s Legal Centre as the point of contact and referral for parents seeking an independent educational psychologist’s report which they hoped could be used to challenge their LEA’s decision to place their child in a special school. Yet it became clear early on that most parents calling were not seeking (and did not need) second professional opinions but advice on their children’s rights under the Education Act 1981 – for example, their right to statutory assessment, to a Statement of Special Educational Needs which clearly listed their child’s needs and which specified the provision required to meet those needs and, having received a Statement, the right to receive the provision specified in that Statement. By coincidence, this was exactly the kind of advice I had been giving parents for the previous six years working for the Advisory Centre for Education and I found it impossible to withhold advice on the law when parents who needed it rang IPSEE, even though that was not my role nor IPSEE’s mission because, clearly, not all parents who called would be seeking integration/inclusion.

How did the organisation and your role evolve? 

There were 12 educational psychologists on the panel when I arrived at IPSEE and I managed to recruit a further thirty professionals, including speech therapists and special needs teachers as well as educational psychologists. Yet their services were seldom needed. Instead, the increasing demand for legal advice made it necessary for me to raise the funds to work full-time, then employ another two advice givers. The link with the Children’s Legal Centre was dissolved and what had been a Children’s Legal Centre project became an independent charity with a new name: the Independent Panel for Special Educational Advice. The original mission to help parents achieve inclusion for their children was replaced by the mission to help parents achieve what they believed was best for their child by way of provision and placement, whether that be mainstream school, special school or, indeed, no school at all (home education). Yet in practice, the bulk of IPSEA’s casework was in support of parents seeking appropriately supported mainstream places for their children, simply because that was what the overwhelming majority of parents (over 80%) contacting IPSEA were seeking. 

Demand for advice continued to grow so we sought and secured funding to recruit volunteer advice givers and the role of the paid workers became to train and support the volunteers. At its maximum we had around 150 advice line volunteers, and with the expansion the profile of the volunteers changed from professionals to parents – we mainly recruited as volunteers parents who’d come to us for advice. Volunteers provided advice five days a week in three 2-hour slots (morning, afternoon and evening). We aimed to have around 30 volunteers covering advice slots each week and volunteers answered calls from around 4,000 parents a year. 

Alongside working to improve our volunteer recruitment, training and support work, we:

  • established sister organisations in Scotland and Northern Ireland with funding from Children in Need and the Down’s Syndrome Association Northern Ireland respectively
  • formed a partnership with the Down’s Syndrome Association (DSA) under which the DSA employed a full-time member of staff on permanent secondment to IPSEA and IPSEA staffed the DSA parent advice line
  • sold our training package and volunteer-based advice systems to the National Autistic Society and the National Deaf Children’s Society, including our procedures for monitoring the quality of volunteers’ advice and surveying parental satisfaction with the advice they had received from IPSEA
  • developed a ‘low-income targeting’ project which aimed to ensure that information about our service reached those communities less likely to know about or use free sources of help and advice
  • following the creation of the SEN Tribunal we recruited and trained volunteers who could advise, and if needs-be, represent parents appealing to the Tribunal
  • following the extension of the Tribunal’s remit to consider disability discrimination claims in education we recruited and trained volunteers who could advise, and if needs-be, represent parents appealing against discrimination in education, most commonly when children with SEN were excluded from school for reasons relating to their needs/disabilities.