- In June 2023 the Government published new School Transport Guidance.
- In July 2023 Brent Council Cabinet agreed a three year extension of the joint arrangement with Harrow Council for the provision of a shared transport service for children with Special Educations Needs and Disabilities (SEND). The report to Cabinet said the joint scheme had saved the councils £250,000. LINK
- In September 2023 the Local Government Ombudsman found against Brent Council in a case about problems with school transport encountered by a Brent SEND pupil.
- Local councils are facing huge deficits and part of that budget crisis is due to excalating numbers of pupils requiring school transport and increased costs of that transport. There is pressure to reduce spending in the area.
- Brent Council's Special Needs Block is in deficit making it harder for parents to get an Education, Health and Care Plan for their child/ren and the slow process means many schools have to provide addition help without any addtional budget. If an ECHP is eventually granted the budget cannot be back-dated.
- Due to lack of specialist SEND provision in Brent many children have to travel outside the borough to school.
All these factors formed the background to a recent meeting of Brent Fights Back! attended by parents and carers of SEND pupil users of the shared transport service.
The Agreement approved by Cabinet includes many performance indicators to be measured. They begin on page 30 LINK and these are the top three:
The Ombusman case was about school transport reliability:
- Mrs X complained about the transport provided for her disabled child to get to and from school. She said the transport was often late without any communication or updates and staff on the transport lacked the skills and training to support young people with Special Education Needs. As a result, Mrs X says her child was often late to school and arrived distressed.
- Mrs X also complained that the Council failed to complete the actions it committed to in response to her complaint. She had to go to avoidable time and trouble pursuing this.
The Ombudsman found LINK:
Summary: The Council accepted fault when it investigated Mrs X’s complaint about school transport for her Disabled child. However, the Council’s failure to complete the actions agreed in its complaint response was further fault which caused Mrs X injustice. The Council has agreed to apologise, take the action it agreed to, make a payment to Mrs X and improve its services for the future.
More than a month later it was clear from the meeting with parents and carers that reliability was still an issue. Late collection and late delivery left vulnerable pupils, who are in need of routine, safety and predictability, upset and parents waiting anxiously for the service.
Long routes were blamed along with more pupils (so more drops) per vehicle and the many roadworks causing traffic delays in the borough.
One of the main calls was for a tracking app that could let parents know where the vehcile was on its journey. The service needs to recognise that parents have a duty to ensure their child is safe and an app would help with this. There were complaints about late information about transport arrangements at the start of term. One parent reported that it had taken two weeks for transport to be arranged for a new school so the child had to stay at home.
In terms of comparable size and scale of the transport services provided by Harrow on behalf of Brent, there are currently 92 in-house operated routes and 223 taxi routes compared to 74 in-house operated routes and 123 taxi routes for transporting clients in Harrow. (Cabinet Report)
In addition to minibuses some children are transported by taxi and there were concerns that frequent changes of escorts meant that children were not travelling with people they knew and who understood their needs. One disturbing example was a child who was made to get out of the road side of a vehicle putting them at risk.
A pick-up arranged for 7.20am could be made at 8.10 or 8.20am, or 6.55am. One child had more than 3 hours of travel a day, picked up at 7.04am and back home at 6.30pm. Another child was only 20 minutes from their school but picked up at 7.45am.
Parents wanted more training for escorts to ensure they understood the needs of the child and importance of safety and also training for when children made the transition to the use of public transport.
A driver said that staff take pride in the buses and try to clean them twice a week but some vehicle are reaching the end of their lives. Some routes are long but drivers have no control over that. Buses do run slightly late but there are real traffic issues and 20mph limits. The minimum number of children has been raised to 10-12 and one driver and one escort is not enough. There should be more transport tailored to individual needs.
The website Special Needs Jungle reminds Local Authorities:
- They must consider each transport application on its own merits and should not be rigidly sticking to their policies.
- They have duties under the Equality Act 2010, including the duty not to discriminate on the basis of disability.
- Children with SEND or who have mobility difficulties may be eligible for transport even if they live within statutory walking distances, and do not have to have an EHCP. In our experience, it still seems to surprise some LAs that children with SEND living within walking distance of their school are eligible for transport.
- Provision of transport costs must cover both return journeys unless it is inappropriate, e.g. if the parent works near the school. This demolishes a favourite tactic of some councils, that an agreement is to pay for transport only for those legs of the school journey when the child is actually in the vehicle.
- Means, including disability benefits, are not to be taken into account.
- LAs must give as much notice of changes to transport arrangements as possible, given they’re frequently dealing with children who have difficulty with changes in routine. At this time of year, with the new term just started many parents still waiting for confirmation of transport details, so it may be worth reminding LAs of this.
- LAs must take reasonable steps to meet medical needs (e.g. anaphylactic shock, asthma, seizures) during journeys.
- Behavioural problems on transport are often the result of SEND, and transport can only be withdrawn as a last resort. LAs will still have to meet their education duties to the child concerned and cannot simply tell parents it’s their responsibility. Many LAs’ polices have in the past included a provision allowing them to withdraw transport due to poor behaviour.
- LAs cannot assume parents will provide transport without their consent. It is unlawful to insist without consent to limiting transport provision to, for instance, a travel allowance or mileage for parents. LAs also need parental consent for arrangements for providing escorts, including expecting parents to act in that capacity.
- The guidance states that LAs may “consider it appropriate” to make arrangements for transport at times other than the beginning and end of the school day for children who cannot attend all day, such as for medical reasons. However, we suggest this is inadequate: there is nothing in the statute limiting the transport duty school hours.
- Local transport policies must be
published on LA websites and in the SEND Local Offer. They should be easy
to find, clear, and give information on how to apply for free transport,
plus how to appeal.
Brent Council is aiming to reduce the amount of out-of-borough travel by increasing the amount of SEN provision in the borough with a 150 place school in London Road and 16+ provision at the Welsh Harp.The Manor School satellite at Newman Catholic College has been increased to 63 places. Primary schools with falling pupil numbers are being encouraged to use the space freed up for additional special needs provision. In July the Cabinet were told that the number of clients transported by Harrow on behalf of Brent was approximately 1,228 SEND children and 119 adults.
Brent Cabinet LINK did not consider going out to procurement for an alternative provider for the £43m over 3 years contract,
The estimated value of the proposed Inter Authoirty Agreement ( IAA) for the initial 3 year term is £43,000,000 and therefore it is classed as a High Value Contract for the purposes of the Council’s Contract Standing Orders. Contract Standing orders require that High Value Contracts are ordinarily procured via a tender process. However, Contract Standing Order 84(a) provides that subject to compliance with procurement legislation, Members may agree an exemption from the requirement to procure in accordance with Contract Standing Orders where there are “good operational and/or financial reasons”.
For the reasons detailed above, it is not considered that there is a breach of procurement legislation as Regulation 12(7) permits the joint collaborative partnership proposed between authorities. Furthermore, Officers consider that there are good operational and financial reasons for entering into the IAA with Harrow as set out in paragraph 3 of this report.
Ominously the report notes:
The significant financial pressures relating to this operation and the demand for the service will be addressed through the separate service transformation review that is underway.
Meanwhile parents are left grappling with a transport service that to many of them doesn't see as fit for purpose in addition to their struggles to get their children an EHCP and a suitabler school placement.
Advice re school transport is available from SENTAS - Special Educational Needs Transport Advocacy Service HERE
At the Brent Fights Back! meeting parents and carers agreed that they needed a collective voice to overcome the isolation of just protesting as individuals and needed to make clear and specific demands over a communication system, more respectful treatment and shorter journeys.
The first step is supporting a petition going to the Cabinet on Monday December 11th at 10am LINK:
"Special Educational Needs and Disability School transport buses
We the undersigned petition the council to Review the current home to school travel assistance offer for eligible SEND families in Brent and to urgently provide more school buses to reduce the journey times for children on the current routes to and from school."
The ePetion was signed by 123 people, and the deadline has now passed for additional signatures.
Zaynab Alfadhi is scheduled to speak for 5 minutes regarding the petition.
Parent carers and supporters, will attend the Cabinet meeting to support Zaynab and the ongoing campaign to secure safe and appropriate SEND transport for all eligible children and young people in Brent.
If you are available, please attend the meeting.
It is essential to hold Brent Council accountable for their decision-making and future policies on school travel for compulsory-age children. Our collective advocacy for the safety and appropriate support of our children and young people is crucial so that they can fulfil their potential.
The meeting starts at 10 am so everyone needs to arrive and be seated before it starts.
Monday 11th December 2023 at 10.00 am, Cabinet
Venue: Conference Hall - Brent Civic Centre, Engineers Way, Wembley, HA9 0FJ*
The meeting can also be viewed online via the below link.