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School Transport Must Try Harder

Changes to councils’ transport policies are having an increasing effect on children trying to get to school, according to a report released by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO).

The Ombudsman is upholding more complaints from parents and carers who need to find alternative ways to get their children to school when councils change their policies, or the way they apply them.

In 2015/16 the LGO received 261 complaints and enquiries about school transport compared with just 160 in the previous year.

In one case, a teenager with autism was affected when the council changed the way it applied its transport policy, and stopped providing him with a taxi to school.

His family were told he should get to school using a route which involved walking for a mile down an often unlit area with no footpath, catching a train and then getting a bus. This, despite the fact the boy’s conditions means he has a significantly reduced awareness of danger and a problem with loud noises.

In another case, a mum appealed against the council’s decision to refuse free school transport for her youngest daughter to travel to the school her sisters attended. Despite providing the appeal panel with information about the family’s personal and financial circumstances, the panel decided not to provide free transport. However, the Ombudsman found no evidence the panel had even looked at whether there were any exceptional circumstances so they could consider exercising discretion in this case.

Local Government Ombudsman, Michael King, said:

“When looking at school transport awards, councils must ensure decisions are made fairly, legally and transparently. Failing to do this can cause confusion, financial hardship and have a significant impact on some of the most vulnerable families, particularly those who have children with special educational needs.

“While I appreciate the financial strain councils are under, parents and carers can only have trust in their council’s decision making if they are kept properly informed throughout the process, and told clearly the reasons for any decisions made.”

The report offers advice and guidance both for parents and councils on the school transport decision making process. It also offers advice on ways local councillors can scrutinise their own processes to ensure their policies are open and accountable.

Response from Contact a Family on the publication of Local Government Ombudsman report on school transport published today, 17 March

Amanda Batten, Chief Executive of Contact a Family, said:

“It’s clear that some councils are blatantly side-stepping their legal duty to provide suitable, free transport to pupils who are eligible because of their special educational need or disability. The findings of the LGO report published today mirrors the concerning number of calls we get to our helpline from parents worried about school transport for their child. That’s why Contact a Family is supporting a parliamentary inquiry into school transport. Children are being refused school transport by their councils despite being clearly eligible for it while others are have been offered inappropriate alternatives, such as a disabled child who needs close supervision when out in public being offered a bus pass to get public transport to school.

“Transport is an integral part of a child’s education. If a child can’t get to school or their journey is stressful or unsafe then that child won’t be able to learn and participate at school like other children. It affects the whole family, with many parents having to deal with a logistical nightmare or having no choice but to give up their or jobs or reduce hours in order to drive their child to and from school each day. Councils have a responsibility to make fair, legal and transparent home to school transport decisions – budget pressures are never an excuse for not following the law.”

Local Government Ombudsman; Contact a Family

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