So many families of disabled children rely on home to school transport. Whether it's a shared taxi, minibus or a taxi with an escort, many parents simply could not manage to get their youngsters to school without this help, funded by the local authority.
However, a new survey, by researchers at Leeds university, has found has highlighting serious failings in the information provided by local authorities, including a lack of accurate information around application, entitlement on websites that were difficult to navigate.
The research was funded by the disability charity, Cerebra and led by Sorcha McCormack, a researcher at the Leeds university Law School and Professor Luke Clements. Sorcha has written about the study for SNJ.
by Sorcha McCormack
Between November 2016 and January 2017, a group of volunteer law students at Leeds University completed a research project on the accuracy and accessibility of local authority home-to-school transport policies.
Cerebra’s in-house helpline team had identified school transport issues as a commonly occurring problem for parents of disabled children, amounting to 17% of referrals in 2015 and rising to 19% in 2016. It appears that this concern is shared by other charities and the Local Government Ombudsman.
A preliminary examination of a small sample of local authority online home-to-school transport policies revealed inconsistencies and inaccuracies were apparent. We therefore decided to conduct an in-depth research project, gathering a group of 12 students, training them on the law, and assigning them into groups where in total they were given 71 LA websites to analyse.
An overview of the law
The legislation on school transport is relatively straight forward. The main Act, the Education Act 1996, details who is entitled to free home to school transport. In essence there are 4 groups of children who are ‘eligible’, these are:
- Children who live outside the walking distance;
- Children from low income families;
- Children who cannot reasonably be expected to walk because of the nature of the route;
- Children who cannot reasonably be expected to walk because of their SEN, disability or mobility problems.
The survey and findings
The research required the students to find the relevant local authority policy and then to answer 10 standard ‘tick the box’ type questions – although several also had a ‘comment box’ for students to note their observations. The survey contained questions regarding accessibility, user friendliness and accuracy of legal content and availability of application and appeal forms. The findings include:
- Almost half of the sites were considered difficult to understand and/or to navigate;
- Almost half of the sites failed to include mention of one of the four statutory categories of eligible children;
- Almost one in ten of the sites failed to mention the category relating to children with Special Educational Needs (SEN), mobility or disability problems and of those that did, 14% referred only to those with SEN (hence excluding children with a disability or mobility problem);
- Four out of ten sites failed to provide information as to how an application could be made for supported school transport (para 4.13);
- Almost four out of ten sites ‘failed make it clear that children who cannot reasonably be expected to walk to school because of their SEN, disability or mobility issues are entitled to transport’;
- In many sites reference was made to non-statutory (arguably unlawful) local criteria including:
- ‘parents are expected to drive children who have a temporary medical condition to school…’
- ‘mobility issues must be ‘significant, long-term and severe’;
- ‘that pupils with a statement of SEN/EHC plan must make their own arrangements to school’;
- ‘pupils with SEN attending mainstream school are not entitled to transport’.
- ‘an EHCP is required to be entitled to transport’;
- ‘certain long term disabilities [will be considered]’;
- ‘firstly, parents should look for help from family members and neighbours’;
- Over half of the policies failed to make clear that children with SEN, disability or mobility problems would be assessed on an individual basis;
- Almost a fifth of sites failed to include information on how to appeal or complain about school transport;
- The length of local authority policies varied widely, with the shortest at just two pages and the longest at 69. Over a third were in excess of 20 pages and (almost) half of these contained no summary.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The findings from the research project identify a systemic problem with local authority school transport policies. Not one of the local authority websites examined fulfilled all the legal/good practice criteria satisfactorily. For example, some websites accurately reflected the law but the information was buried in a long winded overly complex PDF. Others may have had an easily accessible policy and application form, but omitted reference to a particular category of eligible children.
The problem appears not only to be in local authority policies but also in the application of these policies in practice. Many referrals received by the Cerebra helpline team concern refusals for reasons not contained within the law or guidance – which suggests a need for staff training / awareness raising on these matters. There is also a strong argument for the Department for Education to provide (in guidance) a template for standardised transport policy, application form and appeal procedure that all authorities can adopt to ensure parents are not subject to ‘a postcode lottery’.
The research report concludes that there is a compelling case for the Secretary of State to take action to address this systemic problem. Action of this kind would include strengthened guidance and (in individual cases) consideration of the exercise of her default powers (for example under section 497 of the Education Act 1996).
 Amounting to 47% of the 152 English Local Authorities randomly chosen to provide a geographical mix.
 For more information and guidance on the law see Cerebra School Transport: A guide to Parents in England (2016)
 The walking distance is 2 miles for children under the age of 8 & 3 miles for children aged 8 and over see Section 444(5) of the Education Act 1996.
 The guidance and legislation note: Children must be individually assessed; parents may be expected to accompany child to school (no expectation to drive); child must be attending the nearest suitable qualifying school; parents are not required to use DLA; ‘disability’ can be short or long term, permanent or temporary; you are not required to have a Statement of SEN or ECHP to apply.
She is also an experienced broadcast and print journalist & author. Tania also runs a PR, web & social media consultancy, SocialOro Media. She is a Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate with Ehlers Danlos syndrome.
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