SEND Transport costs driven by ‘increased parental expectations’ claims councils’ group, and “something has to give”. Disabled children’s safety, perhaps?

Image shows colourised black taxi with front cover of report and some parental quotes

Over the weekend, the County Councils Network (CCN) issued a report on the spiralling costs of home-to-school transport, including the costs of transporting children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). So who are the CCN, and why do their opinions matter? Read on for more.

Who’s in the County Councils’ Network?

The County Councils Network describes itself as, “the voice of England’s counties.” Their member local authorities (LAs) pride themselves on delivering “high-quality services that matter the most to local communities.

I live in one of these councils. My kids have experienced their SEND services. One of them was nearly broken by them. There aren’t enough drugs in the whole of Central America to make me believe their description above is true. But that’s CCN - they lobby national government, media, and others to get a better deal for their members. You can find out whether your LA is a member of CCN here. Or you can try, at least. The list of 37 member councils doesn’t match the map of members on their website.

CCN Record on SEND

CCN bring a similar level of competence to SEND. With one or two notable exceptions, CCN members mostly do not deliver SEND services well. At the time of writing, more than two-thirds of CCN members had significant weaknesses in their SEND services, according to Ofsted and Care Quality Commission inspections. Two of these LAs have been given formal SEND service improvement notices by the Department for Education, and we’re likely to see more join this select club of incompetents in the coming months.

As for SEND appeals, roughly one in four English LAs is a member of CCN but collectively, they’re involved in over half of all appeals to the SEND First Tier Tribunal.

Financially, things are even worse. Almost 80% of CCN members have deficits on their Dedicated Schools Grant (the main education funding pot), compared with 60% of non-CCN members. Most CCN members are subject to Department for Education SEND financial intervention schemes: five are currently on the Safety Valve bailout scheme, and three more are likely to join them in 2024. If you live in a CCN local authority, your child or young person is significantly less likely to get an EHCP issued according to statutory timescales.

This isn’t a group of LAs with a positive, self-aware, or coherent story to tell on SEND. That doesn’t stop these LAs trying, of course: their aggregate failure to deliver SEND services well, or even lawfully, appears to be everyone else’s fault but their own. For a recent example, with unhealthy doses of parent blame, see this article.

Which brings us back to SEND transport.

Questionable research by Isos Partnership

A few months ago, CCN commissioned a research study into home-to-school transport from a consultancy group, the Isos Partnership. You can find the report here. Isos is a weapon of choice for local authority lobbying efforts. Long-time SNJ readers will recall a particularly toxic lobbying effort back in early 2022 from the Local Government Association about the SEND Tribunal system, just before the SEND and AP Green Paper was published. Isos wrote the report behind that, at a cost of just under £20,000.

Isos is also being used for the new “What Works in SEND” project as part of the new SEND Change Programme, and you can draw any conclusion from that you like. On learning this, Tania, SNJ’s Co-Director, withdrew from involvement in the WWiS on principle.

Nonetheless, the financial modelling work that Isos carries out for local authorities is competent, and this transport report highlights significant financial problems that LAs face with home-to-school transport in general, and SEND transport in particular.

Local authorities typically have to fund SEND transport from their own general funding pots, and not from ringfenced education funding. SEND transport costs have risen fast, and Isos predict—credibly—that those costs will continue to shoot up over the next five years. They’re rising particularly fast for County Council Network members, which include some of England’s most rural and sparsely-populated LAs.

Isos estimates that in 2018-19, CCN member councils spent around £338m on transporting SEND children and young people to education placements. It estimates that by 2027-28, those costs are going to roughly triple, to around £1.125 billion.

Why the steep predicted increase in SEND transport costs?

The Isos numberwang provides credible explanations for this estimate. More children and young people have EHCPs, and more are educated in specialist placements at a distance from their homes. Their needs are becoming more complex, requiring more individualised transport arrangements. Inflation, and the murky market for commissioning SEND transport, also pile on cost pressures.

Isos state, firmly, that CCN members are doing all they can to keep these costs down. This is largely based on qualitative field research conducted in CCN counties and when its report relies on this qualitative research, its findings become a lot less credible. According to the methodology section of the report, the researchers spoke only to CCN council officers and councillors. It looks like they didn’t speak to any parent carers, nor did they speak to school leaders, SENDIASS, or anyone else with an independent or impartial view of council performance on SEND transport.

Anime enthusiasts will recognise this for what it is—fan service. In parts, as with the aforementioned 2022 report on the SEND Tribunal, the Isos report does little more than launder the prejudices of council leaders. Interviewing special school heads, for example, would have been sensible. Every September, without fail, many special school leaders have to deal with a three-ring, unexpurgated, Reeperbahn-grade SEND transport shit-show. No sign of that in this report.

Speaking to parent carers (as we have, below) would have shone an important light on the perennial difficulty in getting councils to abide by the law, their operational failings, the practicality of alternatives, and the intended and unintended consequences of operational policy change. Instead, the report talks about ‘increased parental expectations’ as a driver of increased costs, faithfully relaying the views of council officers of diva-style behaviour by some parents.

And as is common with Isos reports, they include council officer remarks about how the SEND Tribunal makes decisions, which simply don’t stand up to scrutiny, or even a basic understanding of how SENDIST works. For the avoidance of doubt, the SEND Tribunal applies the law, it doesn’t take sides.

So if SEND transport costs that much, it must be fantastic, right?

We asked some parents for their views on their child’s SEND transport. Here are some of them, anonymised and edited for length. (Screenreader text is below the image.)

Parental views (text is included below image). Image by Tania Tirraoro. Copyright, Special Neeeds Jungle
Image: Tania Tirraoro. Text included below.

“My son is like a five year old..not sure how he would be able to get to sixth form without travel”

“Stressful! Provider contracts change, recruitment issues, so no stability in drivers and PAs. Training in any form of SEND awareness is minimal… Children removed from overcrowded minibuses because they lash out through sensory overload. No alternative put in place, which puts added pressure on parents.
Providers and LAs play pass the buck relentlessly- assume in the hope that parents will just give up. Transport is one of the biggest contributing barriers to work for SEND parents. Most stringent interpretation of Eligibility criteria applied. Exploitation of 16-19 loophole by LAs is an insult.”

“We're very lucky my son's is really good, run by school with their own vehicles, with school TAs as escorts.”

“"I'm fine with "promoting independence" but there are no buses nearby. Can't figure out how to get travel training. Unable to speak to a human to advise me. Emails generic & redirect me to website which doesn't tell me what I need to know…"

“We've not been paid our mileage for months. I've had to organise my son's taxi to his AP myself. Eventually the LA sent me a claim form so I could get it back. I'm now owed from the beginning of July.””My son still has a PA for his safety. Despite wanting it, no college locally could meet his needs, so after being out of education seven months, he has to travel 40 miles a day to the only school that said they could meet his needs. But we then have to pay his transport.”

“My son still has a PA for his safety. Despite wanting it, no college locally could meet his needs, so after being out of education seven months, he has to travel 40 miles a day to the only school that said they could meet his needs. But we then have to pay his transport.”

“Transport based trauma for some children with taxis failing to turn up, change of drivers, failing to strap kids in seats, or to strap seats in, failing to keep them safe when opening doors, failure to ensure chaperones are qualified and trained…So I get a personal budget and take him myself. I know not everyone can do this.”

“I'm transporting but getting the fuel reimbursement…well there's always an excuse. New computer system, incorrect payments, wrong forms… How are they not accountable?”

Parental views via our Facebook group

So what does CCN want?

The Isos report says that in both financial and policy terms, the current SEND transport system is unsustainable and risks breaking several CCN members financially. It recommends that central government must either provide councils with additional funding for SEND transport, or make changes to councils’ statutory SEND transport duties.

The Department for Education recently tweaked SEND transport guidance. If you want a good summary of the current state of play, we’d recommend Eleanor Wright’s recent SNJ article, which you can find here.

So what changes to statutory SEND transport duty is Isos suggesting?

  • Means-testing transport policy, so “that families above a specified income threshold are required to make a financial contribution to home to school transport if they choose to use it.” Isos delicately note that this would have to be implemented “sensitively and progressively,” given the current cost of living crisis. “Sensitive” and “progressive” are not words normally associated with CCN members’ SEND services, but even some of their members appear to have baulked at this idea.
  • Reconsidering the statutory eligibility criteria around walking to school, and tighter consideration on whether parents could walk, cycle, or use public transport to take their disabled children/teenagers to school or college.
  • Increased parental requirements to take their children to pick-up and drop-off points for transport, rather than individual homes.
  • Guidance specifying that taxis should only be used as a last resort, if essential on grounds of health and safety, or because other arrangements would breach guidance on maximum journey times.
  • Guidance that would pass individual responsibility to arrange taxi transport down to parents, “where bespoke and complex arrangements are required.”
  • Ensuring that SEND Tribunal panels do not rule on appeals, “until there has been a full consideration of transport costs.” This is an incredible suggestion, given that this is already happening, and that panels already expend considerable time and effort unpicking creatively hand-crafted LA “evidence” on transport costs and timings.

The CCN is very keen on almost all of these recommendations. We can expect them to push them vigorously at every canapé-fuelled opportunity. They are also calling for the Chancellor to provide more transport funds during this week’s Autumn Statement, noting that “something has to give.”

Will the CCN succeed in their changing SEND Transport rules?

Should parents be worried? Possibly, although it’s a vivid indication of CCN’s lobbying incompetence that they’ve issued this press release far too late to influence the Autumn Statement. And the DfE, who are already bailing CCN SEND services out to the tune of hundreds of millions, are under no illusions about the capability of these local authorities to deliver anything.

The frontman for CCN’s press statement on SEND transport is Councillor Roger Gough. Until recently, Cllr Gough was the lead cabinet member for Kent’s SEND services, playing a starring role in driving Kent’s appalling, frequently unlawful, occasionally lethal SEND services over a cliff. It really takes something for Kent’s bigwigs to brand someone incapable of a SEND leadership role, but Cllr Gough has managed it.

In a world where accountability and humanity genuinely existed at the top of the SEND system, his opinions wouldn’t matter. But remorse at presiding over a SEND service driven to disaster has not deterred him. So when Cllr Gough says “something has to give.” We know full well what—or more precisely, who—that means.

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Matt Keer

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