Meet John, an IPSEA Advice Line volunteer since 2017.

With a rich background in special education spanning over three decades, John has been a vital asset to IPSEA, bringing his expertise and unwavering commitment to supporting families of children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).


Hello, my name is John, and I have been an Advice Line volunteer with IPSEA for the last six years. I retired from teaching in 2017 after 33 years, with 23 of those years spent working in five different special schools as a teacher and senior manager. In the last few years of my teaching career, I became aware of IPSEA’s useful website and the support they offer to parents, often directing parents to IPSEA when issues with the local authority arose. 

Upon retiring, I didn’t want my knowledge and experience of the challenges facing children and young people with special educational needs to go to waste. I felt I still had something valuable to offer, and the IPSEA Advice Line seemed to be a perfect fit for my skill set. After going through the interview, training, and assessment process, I became an Advice Line Volunteer. 

A day in the life of a volunteer 

In my six years as a volunteer, I’ve taken nearly 800 calls on a wide range of issues. Currently, I take three calls a week, usually on Tuesday or Wednesday mornings. Each call is scheduled at 9am, 10am and 11am, typically wrapping up by 12.30, though sometimes they extend a bit longer due to the complexity of the issues. 

As soon as I get confirmation of a booking, I review the issue and start making notes on questions I might need to ask and reminders of relevant legal aspects. If there is anything I need clarification on I will get in touch with IPSEA’s very supportive legal team. I may also check previous advice especially if given recently. I also research the local authorities related to the calls to check for any misinformation or issues on their websites. I set up my advice notes the afternoon before my calls and log in early on the day of the calls to check for any late changes. 

During the call, I aim to stick to the 30-minute timeframe to ensure I have time for write-ups. However, more complex calls or parents needing extra support can take longer. I learnt quite quickly that the issue the parent is raising may not be the only one or indeed the most significant one so asking the right questions is important. 

During the call I may take a parent back a few steps, for example, if a parent wants to discuss a draft EHC plan I will take them back over the assessment process to make sure that it has been carried out correctly. Similarly, I may take the parent forward, for example, if a child would be involved in a phase transfer in the near future I would make sure they had some idea of the process particularly around choice of school. 

After each call, I write up detailed notes, adding any additional information provided by the parent, and set out the advice as numbered points. Some calls require follow-up emails or clarification from IPSEA’s legal team. Finally, I shred any notes to maintain confidentiality. 

Memorable experiences, challenges and the impact of volunteering

A funny memorable experience was phoning a parent who couldn’t continue the call as they had literally just given birth. The more unusual calls stick in my mind, like the one time I spoke directly to a young person with ASD who was making the call on their own behalf. They were pleased to speak to someone who understood their condition and could help them with their issues. 

The biggest challenge is supporting parents who are upset, tearful, or angry about their situation. Staying calm, empathetic, and focused on giving the necessary advice is crucial. These calls often require follow-up emails, as parents might not absorb all the information during the call. I also direct parents to other agencies or charities for additional support and sometimes advise them to step back and act as advocates for their children. 

You can get a feeling of the immediate impact you are having from the positive comments that parents make during the calls. You often get a feeling of the sense of relief that a parent has from being given some direction through their issues.

You do get a sense that you are empowering parents. You know that you are having a collective impact along with the other helpline volunteers and the wider IPSEA team. 

My advice for prospective volunteers 

You don’t need a background in SEN or a personal connection to someone with SEN to volunteer, though it can be helpful. You just need a commitment to supporting parents and, in turn, children and young people with SEND. Understanding SEN law can feel daunting initially, and you do spend more time in preparation for calls. More often than not the issues are similar and so is the advice.This type of repetition means you can soon quote from the law verbatim. 

Having a big heart and a thick skin is essential, as you’ll empathise but need to stay emotionally detached to give the best advice possible. Some of the background stories can be quite sad and you can feel enraged that a child/young person and parents are not getting the support they should. This feeling of injustice is a great motivator.   

You need to be able give the best advice you can and hope that the parent is able to use that advice to get their desired outcomes. 


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