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Saltney couple claim discrimination case victory over Flintshire County Council

Stephanie and Martin Burton

THE parents of an autistic schoolboy say they hope Flintshire County Council will learn from its mistakes after a ‘landmark’ tribunal ruling.

Stephanie and Martin Burton took legal action against the authority after claiming County Hall education chiefs tried to ignore their wishes and send their gifted son – who passed his maths GCSE aged eight – to a different school.

A Special Educational Needs Tribunal for Wales (SENTW) ruled on February 10 the council ‘unlawfully discriminated’ against the boy, now 12, ‘directly contrary to the Equality Act 2010’.

Stephanie and Martin – who say they have been ‘put through hell’ – applied for their son to go to a grammar school in Wirral, where they believed he would achieve his academic potential.

The couple, from Saltney, met council staff in September 2010 to discuss what they wanted, but the authority wanted the former Saltney Ferry Primary School pupil to go to specialist unit at Argoed High in Mynydd Isa instead, which would have been cheaper.

Maths teacher Stephanie said: “I took my son to the Argoed for a visit, and they were very friendly and kind. They obviously care a great deal for their autistic students, but we decided it wasn’t right for our son.”

Stephanie and Martin filled in their preference form – choosing the grammar school – and sent it to the council.

In December 2010 council officers held a behind-closed-doors meeting and decided the boy should go to the Argoed.

“The first I heard of their decision was the local authority phoning me up in February 2011 to say they had chosen Argoed,” Stephanie told the Chronicle.

“I was shocked and angry. We applied immediately to SENTW to oppose the decision.”

She added: “We didn’t even get a chance to discuss it with them after they made the decision. They left us with no option but to appeal.

“We were also aware that there was a possible breach of the Equality Act, which had just come into force, so we lodged a disability discrimination claim as well.”

At another closed meeting in March 2011, the council again decided Stephanie and Martin’s son should go to the Argoed.

The couple sought the advice of Alyn and Deeside MP Mark Tami, who took up their case.

“We didn’t know why they were still refusing to let him go to the grammar school,” said Stephanie.

“They never gave us an adequate explanation. They kept telling us he would not cope in secondary education without a unit.”

Finally, in July last year, the council agreed to let Stephanie and Martin’s son go to the school of their choice.

Martin said: “Our poor son had watched other children in his class preparing to go to secondary school, while he hadn’t known where he was going or what would happen.

“It’s hard enough for an ordinary child, but for a child with autism it’s a nightmare.”

The couple’s son has since settled in at the school after passing the entrance exam and starting in September.

Stephanie told the Chronicle: “We have never seen him so happy. He fits in well, plays with the other children and has made good friends.

“He even came joint top of his class recently. We are so proud of him.”

The tribunal ruled Flintshire County Council had discriminated against the Burtons’ son by not allowing him to go to the school of his choice. A subsidiary claim of indirect discrimination was dismissed.

The panel of three legal experts also said the authority has to make changes to its policies and practices as well as apologise.

Stephanie said: “We had to fight hard to get our son’s needs recognised and provided for. It has cost us thousands of pounds and countless hours researching the law as we couldn’t afford a solicitor.

“We have had to spend our evenings and weekends writing statements instead of playing with our children.

“Those hours are lost to us – we can never have that time again.”

She added: “We want Flintshire to change their practices so other parents never have to suffer as we did.”