Lancashire County Council has moved to reassure families in the wake of a furious backlash to a consultation which some of those it was aimed at say they knew nothing about.
Their anger grew after approval of the policy informed by that process was granted under “urgent decision” powers rather than being brought before a meeting of the authority’s cabinet.
The Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) can reveal that the Labour opposition group on the Conservative-controlled authority plans to ask the regulator OFSTED to order that the consultation be re-run.
The last incarnation of County Hall’s home-to-school transport plan for SEND youngsters already contained provision for so-called “travel training” to help them get to school under their own steam if possible – but a review undertaken two years ago suggested that this option should be given “greater emphasis”.
The updated document states that such training will be offered “free of charge to all children where appropriate…based on the needs of each child and their travel requirements”. They could then be given a free or subsidised travel pass for their journey.
The refreshed policy also increases the mileage payments on offer for parents or carers who choose to take their child to school themselves.
Currently, transport to school for SEND children often takes the form of minibuses or individual or shared taxis funded by the county council.
Papers presented to a meeting of the authority’s cabinet where the urgent decision was reported on Thursday note that “rigorous periodic reviews” will be carried out of the school transport provided to pupils with special needs.
However, Lancashire County Council’s director of education and skills Sarah Callaghan told members that when it came to “any current transport arrangements, there will be no change to them”.
That followed a week of disquiet on social media – during which several families to whom the new policy will apply described how they were unaware of the consultation and decried the fact that just 24 responses to it had been received by County Hall.
They also questioned the urgency of the decision and expressed concern about the potential impact of any changes on their own children.
The LDRS understands that travel training will be offered only to those parents and carers who want it for their child – and that the reviews of individual transport plans, undertaken annually as part of an assessment of the broader support being provided to families, are intended to assess whether a child’s needs are still being met and also if their circumstances have changed.
However, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali, has told the LDRS he will be writing to OFSTED to ask the organisation to intervene over the consultation process, which several parents have described to him as being “a sham”.
“There were only 24 responses, because they’ve done a tick-box exercise to justify trying to make savings [from the transport budget]. This is a very serious issue – these are children with some of the most severe challenges and, for families, it’s a massive kick in the teeth after the council promised to do a proper consultation.
“If they had contacted parents by letter, I’m sure the response would have been much greater. There are many angry parents out there – instead of children being relaxed in school, they’ll be anxious over travelling,” said County Cllr Ali.
Council leader Phillippa Williamson told the cabinet meeting she was confident that transport arrangements would continue to be made on an “individual basis”.
The urgent decision to approve the policy was taken by County Cllr Williamson and education and skills cabinet member Jayne Rear on 23rd August, with the accompanying notice stating that it could not wait until the next cabinet meeting on 2nd September “due to the intention to implement the policy from 1st September, 2021”.
That meeting – at which the matter was subsequently discussed, but with the decision now already made – heard that the urgency had come about as a result of the cancellation of the usual August cabinet gathering and the fact that there was a legal obligation for the policy to be adopted a year in advance of it actually coming into force at the start of September 2022.
The window for school place applications for the next academic year opened on the first of this month – and County Hall’s monitoring officer Laura Sales told members that finalising the home-to-school transport policy was “time critical”. She suggested that any move to revisit the consultation – as County Cllr Ali had called for – could cause the school application process to unravel.
“The admissions policy and transport policy are inextricably linked in law – so if you change the transport policy, it reopens all of the admission choices and that creates real, serious difficulties for schools in trying to manage them and, of course, for us as the authority which administers the process,” Ms. Sales explained.
She added that the consultation had been carried out “perfectly properly”, adding: “We check how many people are looking at what we’re publishing. I’m satisfied that these were documents that were clearly known to the community that they were directed to.”
However, Ms. Sales did apologise for “a delay” which meant that the usual opportunity for councillors to “call in” a decision for further consideration before final approval was missed.
A press release advising of a forthcoming consultation into the policy was issued by the county council on 7th June ahead of a cabinet meeting three days later, at which authorisation was sought for that process to begin.
Much of the press coverage of the matter followed an LDRS report on the discussion at that meeting – with articles generated across a dozen publications between 12th and 14th June, according to the county council’s own analysis. However, neither the press release nor the June cabinet agenda papers advised of an exact start date for the consultation, which ultimately began on 21st June and ran until 18th July – before Lancashire’s schools had broken up for the summer.
The survey of opinion was shared on the county council’s “Get Involved – Have Your Say” website, while a section of the Lancashire Local Offer site – which provides information about the support available for children and young people with special needs and disabilities – also contained details of the consultation. It is understood that the local offer site received more than twice the usual number of hits during the period that the consultation was live.
Meanwhile, Sarah Callaghan told the latest cabinet meeting that the £200,000 in savings that it was hoped the revised SEND school transport policy would achieve had already been realised – as a result of the number of parents and carers who had taken up the option of travel assistance grants to ferry their children to and from school during the pandemic.
”Parents [have been] choosing to transport their children [to school] during Covid, rather than being reliant on expensive taxis. But we’re not pushing any parents to transport their children themselves, it’s purely a choice – but if they choose to, the actual [mileage] allocation is greater than it used to be,” Ms. Callaghan said.
‘IT’S BEEN DONE BY STEALTH – AND THAT MAKES ME SUSPICIOUS’
Fourteen-year-old James Hesketh makes the daily nine-mile journey from his home in Burscough to school in Churchtown, near Southport.
Lancashire County Council lays on a taxi for the trip, which the teenager – who has autism – could not undertake on his own.
His parents both run their own businesses and mum Amanda says that while travel assistance grants might be suitable for some families, it would be impractical for her or her husband to transport James to class each day because of their work commitments.
While she does not believe the authority would ever change the family’s transport arrangements to anything that was unsafe for James, she “dreads to think” what would happen if he were to use public transport.
These were all points that she would have made to the consultation on the new SEND home-to-school transport policy – had she known about it.
“It all seems to have been done by stealth – I think what’s missing is the transparency and that’s where the suspicion creeps in.
“It might be that it hardly impacts me, but that is not the point – you can’t title something a consultation when you are not consulting everybody.
“They pick my son up at my address everyday, so why could they not just send us a note saying that there is a consultation coming, this is where you’ll find the details – and explain to people why they are doing it?
“Travel training is perfect at the right time for that child – and I want my son to be independent. But he can’t cross the road by himself and if he got on a train and, say, some boys started having a go at him, he’d be very frightened.
“It’s just been unnecessary – they are trying to make it sound like they have [gone through] a process when it’s been half-cocked. I’m not trying not to be confrontational – I just want what our kids deserve,” Amanda says.
National SEND reforms introduced in 2014 encourage greater independence for children and young people with special needs as a way of preparing them for the transition into adulthood.
A mum from Preston – who did not want to be named – says her 15-year-old son had been receiving travel training via his special school for more than a year prior to the pandemic, when it was halted. However, she cautions against a “one-size-fits all” approach, because of the time it will take different children to gain the skills and confidence needed to travel alone.
“It has to be person-centred. Ultimately, the aim for my son is that he might, one day, be able to get a bus – one journey – to a place to meet his friends.
“But at the moment, do I feel like he could make complex journeys [like the one to his school]? No, I don’t – and I don’t know whether that will ever change.”
Like Amanda, she says she was not unduly worried by the content of the new policy – which stipulates that transport applications will be considered on a case-by-case basis – but nevertheless wanted to have her say.
“The county council has everybody’s names and addresses and they could, very easily, have carried out a consultation directly with all the families. Everybody should have the opportunity to contribute, because circumstances change – [for instance], I might move house in a couple of years.
“Also, what would be helpful is something saying [what] the changes mean and making them obvious. Because within these families, you have got people who won’t be used to dealing with policy [documents].
“They need to draw out the key bits that are relevant to people. They could have written out to everyone and highlighted the key changes – and how it might affect them in future.”
Under the policy, applications for school transport will take into account factors including the age and maturity of the child and their ability and aptitude – but not parental work commitments or the attendance of siblings at other schools.
Passenger assistants may also be provided to accompany a child or children en route to school if they have “significant needs arising from a medical condition or a disability and where there is an exceptional need for supervision”.