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The truth about SEN School Transport
Over the last few years, there have been regular news articles about cuts to school transport. This has taken the form of reducing number of school buses, terminating services entirely and increasing the amount parents have been asked to contribute.
Today, I received a very revealing breakdown of Essex County Council’s expenditure on school transport. I have been given permission to share this information.
The following is what I received:
Why is this relevant?
This will be of particular interest, obviously, for residents of Essex. It does also have national interest because it is reflective of a national trend.
What this shows
The first, and most obvious point is that there are significant savings being made. Of particular note, are the savings being made in transporting young people with special educational needs.
The reason for the focus on SEN transport is clear. Pupils with SEN have significantly higher costs of transport.
Current statistics indicate that around 14% of the national student population have special educational needs (SEN). On the face of it, you might expect the SEN transport budget to be significantly lower than budgets for transport for non-SEN pupils. That assumption would be wrong, however, because pupils with SEN are far more likely to require transport and are far more likely require individual transport and escorts. As such, the individual cost of transport for a pupil with SEN is likely to be significantly higher than for a pupil without SEN.
For the financial year 15/16, the costs of transporting pupils under 16 with SEN was £8.4 million. The costs of transporting pupils under 16 without SEN was £10.6 million. That means that the cost of transporting pupils with SEN was 79% of transporting pupils without SEN. This is for 14% of the student population.
This is even more noticeable in post-16 transport. In the financial year 15/16, post-16 non-SEN transport cost £492,000. The cost of transporting post-16 pupils with SEN was £784,000. This means SEN pupils (making up 14% of the pupil population) cost 1.5 x as much as pupils without SEN.
Changes in Actual spends
It is helpful to look at how the “actual” cost has changed since 2011/12. This shows the variation of the cost actually incurred, rather than budgeted for, by the local authority.
The table below shows the year on year variation on actual transport costs. The percentages show the increase, or decrease, in expenditure from the previous year. The final column shows the overall variation from April 2011 to April 2016.
The general trend is downwards. In stark contrast, the cost of transport for pupils under 16 without SEN has increased by 13%. This cannot be explained by a population increase because the spend on under 16 pupils with SEN dropped by 17%.
This difference is remarkable. It means that, from 2011 to 2016, the spend on transport for pupils without SEN has increased by £1.2 million. Pupils with SEN pupils faced a £1.7 million cut.
The particularly disadvantaged group is post-16 pupils. This is for both SEN and non-SEN pupils.
In our experience, the cuts to transport have nationally fallen on pupils post-16.
Are the cuts lawful?
Steve Broach, a barrister that we have regularly worked with, writes an excellent blog and has covered the issue of school transport. Steve has kindly agreed to us sharing this. The blog can found here.
On the issue of psot-16 transport, Steve explains
… the duty to provide school transport under section 508B applies only to children of ‘compulsory school age’. The definition of this … covers only children aged 5-15. Children aged 16 and 17 are covered by section 509AA of the [Education Act 1996 Act … This requires every Local Authority to publish a transport policy statement for ‘persons of sixth form age’. Importantly, this statement has to include ‘arrangements for facilitating the attendance [at schools or colleges] of disabled persons and persons with learning difficulties or disabilities’ … However, section 509AA does not itself create a duty or power to provide transport … In setting this policy, the Local Authority will need to have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity for disabled learners … However this is not as good as being covered by the section 508B duty – not least because … ‘eligible’ children under that duty are entitled to suitable transport free of charge …
In light of that summary, the cuts are probably lawful. It would seem that the local authority has identified an area where it can make savings, without easily being challenged, and has done so.
Going to the table at the top, we can see that the local authority has set ever reduced budgets for post-16 transport. That will no doubt be matched with policies ever reducing the number of pupils that will qualify for transport and/or changing the nature of transport support the local authority will provide.
Post-16 SEN Transport and the SEND reforms
A big issue in these figures is that from 2014, the local authority has been responsible for providing transport to more pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
In September 2014, the Children and Families Act came into force. One aspect of those reforms was to create a duty for local authorities to provide SEND support for young people until the age of 25. That was an increase from the age of 19.
The increase in the age means that significantly more pupils with SEND would, in theory, have qualified for transport since September 2014. That means that the reductions of 17% in 14/15 and 18% in 15/16 are particularly concerning because far less funding was being used to cater for far more young people.
Clearly, transport is a big expense.
Post-16 transport has limited statute behind it. As Steve has highlighted, there may be a case for discrimination in the near future for a young person with special educational needs being unable to access education because of a lack of adequate transport.
It seems that school transport will continue to be a growing issue, particularly post-16.
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