Parents of disabled children can spend years finding the right school for their child and often they will then spend as much time battling to get them a place there. How disheartening it is that parents are then further hit with the fight for suitable transport to school for their child. And why does the funding for this transport only cover children aged five to 15, when in England it is compulsory that all children be in some form of education until 18?
This flaw in the legal system has been responsible for causing families with disabled children an inordinate amount of worry and upheaval, with many parents having to either reduce their working hours or give up work completely in order to get their child to school.
We spoke to Una Summerson, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at Contact, a charity that supports families with disabled children, to find out more about the findings of the School Transport Inquiry they published in September 2017 and the petition they are currently running to close the legal loophole excluding 16 and 17 year olds from school transport.
Una begins by explaining the loophole that the local councils are taking advantage of: “In terms of compulsory school age, which is five to 15, if a child has a difficulty walking, a disability or special educational needs, then yes more than likely transport arrangements will be provided for them – that could be a bus, taxi or a personal travel budget. But the problem lies in terms of both 16 and 17 year olds.
“There is also a loophole which we haven’t focused on so much in terms of under fives as well. A child could be in a pre-school reception class at four but the local authorities have discretion both under five and at 16. This discretion in the past has seen most local authorities providing travel arrangements in a similar way that they would for children of compulsory school age. But what we have found is that probably because of budget pressures, this is where a lot of discretion is now being removed completely or being charged for.”
Contact noticed a substantial increase in calls to their helpline relating to this matter, this is one of the reasons they decided to launch the Inquiry. They have experienced a 125% increase in calls regarding school transport over the last four years.
“It has been happening for a number of years, but it has become a bigger problem in the last couple of years. I think it was 2014 that the first local authorities started to charge for this or remove their discretion but it has actually really increased in 2016 – 2017.”
A Postcode Lottery
It is also a postcode lottery and entirely dependent on what local authority you fall under as to whether your child will be offered a transport solution to travel to an education establishment. Some families have even moved house without realising their new local authority will not offer any transport support, whilst their old authority continues to do so.
The frustration, worry and financial pressure this legal loophole is putting on families is widespread and severe in many cases. Una goes on to explain the impact that it is having on many people’s lives: “It is causing enormous stress and worry and anxiety for families. Our Inquiry found that nearly half of families are having to reduce their working hours or give up work completely because of transport arrangements.
“We have heard from parents who have actually said that their young person wouldn’t be able to finish their education because of the loss of transport at 16 because they simply can’t afford the charge. And for others where they have had to fork out £1000 or double that of they have two disabled children. It’s pushed them further into financial hardship, when we already know about the range of extra costs that families and disabled people have – it’s just another burden.”
Leanna Forse was told that her 16-year-old son Billy, who suffers a unique chromosome disorder, does not fit the criteria for the council to cover the costs of a taxi to his college. While he has always travelled to school this way, it was revoked when he turned 16 under the county council’s post-16 transport policy, put in place at the end of 2015, which only covers transport costs in “exceptional circumstances”. Leanna was unable to take Billy to college herself and he cannot use public transport due to physical and mental impairments. It would have cost Leanna around £7,200 a year to fund the taxi herself. In the end she was forced to quit her job.
Leanna says: “I know first-hand the consequences of school transport being taken away from my child. I had to quit my job as a teacher last year because the council would no longer take Billy to school. I’m in a good place right now because I’ve got a part time job and other plans on the horizon, but it was an awful time and should never have happened. I know so many families will have had to leave their jobs to do the transport themselves, or reduce hours if they can. We need to stamp out the inequality that disabled children and their families face in so many aspects of their lives, including school transport.”
A Clear Change
The Inquiry has already succeeded in securing an overhaul of the guidance published by the Department for Education (DFE). Contact are working with officials to ensure clear and robust guidelines are produced that demonstrate to local councils what they should be doing to provide school transport for disabled children.
Closing this legal loophole that exists in England is now the main aim to ensure access to education is provided until a child reaches 18. Una summarises: “One of the issues that we do want to highlight in terms of where local councils are making these decisions to remove transport, is that we do recognise that they are doing this because of severe financial budget pressures that are coming from central government and we recognise that they are not doing this lightly. But at the same time we don’t think that transferring that funding pressure onto families that are already facing a range of challenges and extra costs is the solution and that’s why we want central government to close this loophole because if that happens they will then have to support local authorities through additional funding to be able to meet their legal duties.”
You can support Contact’s school transport petition by visiting contact.org.uk.