Kent County Council has written to MPs to highlight a struggle with school transport for pupils living with special educational needs.
A letter to all Kent MPs says SEN transport contracts are being handed back because firms do not have the drivers to carry them out and when these are put back out to tender no bids are being received.
The county council says the situation is leaving parents “frustrated and angry.”
The letter says: “All our operators are struggling to find drivers. Both Stagecoach and Arriva have driver shortages, which mean they are losing journeys, especially when you add in daily absence due to sickness or self- isolation. Both operators have emergency plans to tackle the shortage, over time, but in the short term, we are providing support with their emergency timetables to enable them to maintain peak commuter and school services. Our smaller operators are no different, but they have no capacity for extra work and coaches on standby to cover.
“One key part of passenger transport is the SEN transport sector, where in addition to bus/coach operators, we rely heavily on taxi and private operators. During the height of the pandemic, we maintained many of these operators for return to normal, but these companies are seeing driver shortages and more worrying passenger escort shortages. This year significant numbers of SEN clients are needing transport and we are now at a point where after going to market with tenders, no bids are received, leading to multiple repeat tenders.
We are seeing contracts won, then handed back due to operators’ staff shortages.
“Although we have already allocated transport to a large number of our SEN clients (4,955), the increase of this cohort of SEN children (a 12%+ increase since September 2019), means that hundreds (391) are still to be allocated and there is very real concern about securing their transport to school or college. To illustrate further, 823 requests for SEN Transport have been received in the last 7 weeks in the Passenger Transport Unit.”
In a joint statement, Kent County Council’s Cabinet Member for Education and Skills, Shellina Prendergast, and Cabinet Member for Highways and Transport, David Brazier, said: “Home to school transport for some of Kent’s most vulnerable children and young people is being negatively impacted by the national shortage of qualified drivers and this week we have written to the county’s MPs urging them join Kent County Council in supporting those families affected.
“This shortage is affecting pupils who travel to school on both public and private hire transport, it has been worsened by driver sickness and periods of self-isolation, and it is now being exacerbated by the current fuel situation.
“Throughout the pandemic, KCC has been working closely with our transport providers and supporting them to keep services running and this work has intensified as this latest situation has developed over the past few weeks. We are also helping transport providers recruit additional drivers and passenger assistants as well as working hard to seek alternatives to hired transport for some of our pupils with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.
“We understand that concerns over home to school transport can be worrying and frustrating for children and young people, and their parents and carers, and we would like to reassure all families in Kent that we are doing everything we possibly can to ensure pupils can get to and from school safely during these unprecedented times, which are affecting so many people throughout the country.”
Labour county councillor Barry Lewis said the government needs to “get to grips” with the situation, adding: “This is affecting lots of people including our school children.”