For local authorities, school transport is one of the most expensive part of providing support for children with disabilities. Often the most appropriate schools is up to an hour away from a child's home. That distance needs to be covered by a taxi or school minibus twice a day, five days a week, and often with an escort for safeguarding reasons.
However, since the introduction of EHCPs which continue to 18, many parents have discovered to their dismay that the transport law hasn't kept pace with the new extension and some LAs are refusing to bear the cost of transport for post-16 students. This means parents are faced with a dilemma - should they have to give up work or drive hundreds of miles a week so their children can access something they are legally entitled to?
The charity, Contact, have taken up the cause and today, CEO, Amanda Batten tells us about their school transport campaign and the loophole that's putting some young people with SEND and their families at a disadvantage.
Challenging the SEND transport loophole by Amanda Batten of Contact
How can it be fair that the law says a disabled young person is expected to be in school or training until 18 but does not have the transport to get there once they turn 16? It’s the question we’re asking - and why we need your signature on our petition to close the loophole in the law which means councils can refuse or charge a young person for school transport when they turn 16 (even if they stay at the same school or college).
At Contact, we’re concerned that more disabled young people across England are being refused or charged for school transport in this way as councils try to make savings to their budgets. School transport is a big issue for many of the families we support, which is why we launched our School Transport Inquiry last September.
Nearly half of the 2,500 parents who responded to our survey told us that travel arrangements for their disabled child meant that they could not work or they’d had to decrease working hours. If transport is removed it can have disastrous consequences for the child and the whole family. As one Dad put it, “It’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”
As part of our inquiry, we also reviewed 59 local authority transport policies and found that over half included unlawful blanket statements or other restrictive criteria.
The good news is that because of the evidence families helped us gather, the Secretary of State for Education agreed to review statutory guidance for home to school transport. Officials are working on this now, and we are hopeful that this will lead to clearer and stronger statutory guidance so all local school transport policies reflect the law.
So far so good. But we are now turning our attention to what happens to school transport for young people aged 16 and 17 and for those under five when their local authority decides to withdraw free transport or starts charging for it. It’s something that appears to be happening more and more as local authorities struggle to juggle ever diminishing budgets.
The root cause of this lies in the fact that when the education participation age was raised to 18, transport law wasn’t changed to reflect this. This means that after 16, transport provision is discretionary and the local authority can charge. So in practice, the arrangement can either stop altogether, or the local authority will tell families they have to start paying.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that young people 16 and over aren’t entitled to transport help at all. The law says that all local authorities must publish a transport policy statement for learners (16-19-year-olds) specifying what travel arrangements the local authority considers necessary to enable them to access education and how it will help vulnerable students get to school or college. However, it’s for the local authority to decide what they will actually provide but they should always consider the young person's individual needs before making a decision.
Advice for local authorities about SEND transport
When making decisions about school transport, councils need to remember that:
- For a child with a disability or SEN there is often less choice of school and a suitable school that meets their particular needs can often be some distance away.
- While most children eventually learn to get to school independently, usually when they are at secondary school, for many disabled young people they will never be able to get to school independently even if their school or college is within walking distance.
- Many disabled young people will also need to be in education or training for longer to achieve the particular skills or qualifications they need reach their full potential.
All this means it’s often more expensive and time consuming for a disabled young person to get to and from school or college each day. The journey to school is an integral part of the school day and if it is stressful, a child or young person will not be able to learn and participate fully. And the transport issues some families face, such as having to make long journeys, impacts on the whole family both financially and emotionally.
Leanna Forse from Eastbourne, whose son Billy, who's 17, has a rare chromosome disorder, said: “From the day he was born I have been fighting for what Billy needs. I took him to and from school for the first two or three years, then we moved further away and were entitled to transport when he was six-years-old.
“I had been working since he was 2 years old, voluntary and working at the youth clubs. But because of the transport, I was able to think about a career and I started a degree, did teacher training and got a job as an English teacher in a local secondary school. I want to work and give back to my community and it was amazing to have the opportunity to do that. But when Billy turned 16 I was told that he would not get school transport anymore, even though he is at the same school. I appealed the decision which was refused, so I took it to the local government ombudsman who agreed with me, but they referred back to the council who used the same councillors who again said no.
“It is essential that Billy goes to college, he has therapies there which are helping him progress, so I have given up my job to transport him myself ensuring he stays at college. I always knew that I was going to become a full-time carer when Billy reached 25 but thought I had a few more years.”
Councils are having to make very difficult decisions due to budget pressures but we believe that pressure should not be passed on to families with disabled children. Until the loophole is closed, some disabled young people will inevitably be unable to complete their education and it will cause their parents additional financial hardship.
Help us to close the loophole by signing our petition.
For advice and information on school transport, visit Contact’s website and our pages on transport to school and college and post-16 school transport in England. Contact’s helpline advisers can explain your rights to school transportand can help you challenge decisions to remove or charge for school transport. Call freephone 0808 808 3555.