Published by BBC NEWS - 27th March 2024
  • Published
Shakeerah

Council spending on school transport for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) has almost doubled in the last five years, BBC research has found.

Spending is set to hit £1.4bn across local authorities in England in 2023-24, a 95% rise from £728m in 2018-19.

Councils are required by law to provide free transport to SEND children who are unable to walk to school.

The government said it was investing £2.6bn in special school places.

It said this would mean fewer children would need to travel long distances, reducing costs.

Council leaders say while inflation has pushed up costs, the rise has been fuelled by increased demand and complex cases.

Local authorities have seen demand increase by over 40%, with more than 183,000 children using the services this year.

Meanwhile, the average annual cost of SEND school transport per child across England has gone up by around a third, from £6,280 to £8,299.

The rising cost of providing school transport is a key driver of the current pressure on council budgets.

Council leaders have warned overspends in this area will lead to cuts in services elsewhere as they try to balance the books and avoid following other councils who have recently gone bust.

The leader of the County Councils Network, Tim Oliver, said the cost of school transport was “unsustainable” and suggested means-testing should be looked at, meaning some parents might have to pay.

In Surrey, 11-year-old Shakeerah relies on a taxi that is paid for by the council to get her to and from school every day.

She was diagnosed with a brain tumour just after her first birthday, and requires constant care.

She is deaf and attends a mainstream school, which uses and teaches British Sign Language and is an hour’s drive from her home.

Her mum, Yasmeen Crowther, said the transport the council provides is essential. She and her husband work full time, and could not do the two-hour round-trip twice a day.

“If Shakeerah didn’t have the transport, she wouldn’t go to school,” she said. “She’s of statutory school age, she’s entitled to an education.”

Shakeerah on her way to school

BBC research shows the councils with some of the longest journeys are Herefordshire at 242 miles, which the council said was a weekly trip, and East Sussex at 220 miles.

One council, Buckinghamshire, said it was paying £952 per day for “two complex medical passengers” to travel by ambulance with a nurse.

Other examples include a £684 per day trip in Trafford and £650 for a trip three times a week for a child in Lincolnshire.

Mr Oliver, who is also the Conservative leader of Surrey County Council, said his own local authority’s budget for home-to-school transport was overspent by £10m.

“Nobody could argue this system is working as it should do,” he said. “But throwing money at – even if that money was available – isn’t actually the answer.”

He said a “grown-up conversation” needs to happen and suggested that some parents might be willing to pay.

“It won’t be popular of course because it’s another cost and that’s a challenge, but I think we do need to have that conversation.”

Shakeerah and her mum Yasmeen

Earlier this year three Warwickshire councillors apologised after claiming that some children with a diagnosis that qualifies for support were just badly behaved and that parents had been swapping diagnosis tips on social media.

But Mr Oliver does not believe that parents should be having the finger pointed at them.

“We all want the best for our children and that is all that these parents are seeking to do,” he said.

“I think the system can be quite adversarial… but every parent is simply trying to do the best for their child, I don’t think people are making these things up.”

Yasmeen said it has been a constant fight to get Shakeerah the support she needs.

“It’s been very hard to try and navigate what she’s entitled to, but also what the local authority can provide as well – there’s a huge disparity between the two,” she said.

“Children with SEND are always the ones who see those cuts first, and it has a massive impact on the family unit.”

BBC News sent Freedom of Information requests to all 151 councils in England with statutory responsibilities to provide school transport for SEND children.

A total of 147 of those came back with responses on spending and 113 came back with responses on demand.

These responses have been supplemented by public data included in council submissions to central government and by analysis carried out by the County Councils Network.

Due to variations in the way local authorities gather data, some councils may only have provided information relating to under-16 SEND transport.

Labour said the whole SEND system was “on its knees”, with a lack of local provision due to cuts to council finances.

Louise Gittins, the Labour leader of Cheshire West and Chester Council and chairwoman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People’s board, said: “What’s fundamentally at the bottom of that is that children shouldn’t have to be travelling 50 miles or an hour’s journey to get to school.

“There should be specialist provision near to where they live so that they can go to their school and really thrive in their educational settings.”

The Liberal Democrats said the government had “failed” to plan for the growing number of children with special educational needs and disabilities.

Munira Wilson, the party’s education spokeswoman, said: “Two-thirds of our special schools are at capacity or full, which is why councils are having to transport children out of area.

“The solution to that is to make sure that we’re building and providing that specialist provision in the local area so they don’t have to send those children out.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Every child should have access to a high-quality education, including those with special educational needs, which is why we’re creating around 60,000 special and AP [alternative provision] school places, meeting the current demand for places across the country.”

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