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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The residential schools investigation report


D.5: Advocacy services for children with special educational needs and disabilities

38. Pupils in residential special schools often have difficulty communicating verbally but may have other ways of communicating. As Dame Christine Lenehan told the Inquiry:

I’ve never met a child who didn’t communicate, but I’ve met lots of children who communicate in ways which are unique to them.”[1]

She felt that advocacy for children in residential special schools was about “finding the child again”.[2]

39. Triangle, an independent organisation that provides specialist services for children and young people with complex communication needs, also said that “very young children and those with complex needs can provide information if asked in the right way, and/or if their behaviour is observed in a careful and objective manner”.[3]

40. The NMS for residential special schools in both England and Wales require that schools must identify to each child at least one person whom they may contact directly about personal problems or concerns at the school and who is independent of the school or placing authority (the independent person).[4]

41. The quality standards for children’s homes (which apply where a child resides in a residential special school for more than 295 days per year) provide that:

All children must have access to appropriate advocacy support, and where possible this should be provided by a person that the child chooses. Looked-after children are entitled to an independent advocate to advise them and ensure they have the support needed to express their views, wishes and feelings about their care and lives.”[5]

The quality standards also state that although there is not a legal requirement for non-looked-after children to have access to an independent advocate, homes caring for these children should ensure that children can access advocacy support and should also consider the use of an independent advocate where necessary.[6]

42. Ms Carol Povey, director of the Centre for Autism at the National Autistic Society, explained that autistic children struggle to understand the role of the independent person as set out in the NMS for residential special schools. She suggested that this person should have the experience and training to support autistic children and young people.[7] She also said that many autistic children lack some of the skills required to keep them safe in education settings, to understand grooming and to report sexual abuse when it happens.[8]

43. We also heard of the difficulties of obtaining access to advocacy services. Ms Povey indicated that this could be attributed to limited resources, particularly in providing advocates with the skills, expertise and experience to work with children who communicate in complex ways.[9] Triangle commented on the variability in the approach and skill level of advocates.[10] It also noted that the inability to access advocates could be attributed to the fact that staff may be selective in what they report, and advocates are reliant on information they receive from these staff members to support children with complex needs.[11] Mr James Robinson, policy and strategic lead for children and young people at Mencap, suggested that the difficulty in accessing advocacy services could be because institutions may have “a vested interest in making sure that the investigation isn’t as thoroughly carried out as it could be”.[12]

44. There are currently limited advocacy services for children with disabilities in England and Wales. While some organisations do run advocacy services for children with disabilities, these are largely charitably based and limited in their reach.[13] Children in care or who live away from home can use the ‘Help at Hand’ telephone and representation service run by the Children’s Commissioner but this is not specifically designed for those with disabilities and is not well publicised in residential special school settings.[14]

45. This investigation has also highlighted the importance of children with special educational needs and disabilities having access to individuals independent of their schools who can listen to them and advocate for them. It is an issue that has been raised a number of times before. When asked whether independent advocacy for children with SEND needed to be looked at again, Dame Christine Lenehan said:

I think it’s been looked at again, and again, and again in the last 20 years. I think the honest answer is that people won’t resource it effectively because they don’t see it as important enough.”[15]

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