By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
Demand for special school travel placements are rising to “unprecedented” levels in Kent, it has emerged.
Around 6,250 children travel from their home to school on transport across 12 districts, which is organised by Kent County Council (KCC), excluding Medway.
Under this, the majority of pupils living with special educational needs rely on private taxi and minibus services.
There has been a growing demand for school transport, with about 750 more parents requesting the KCC-led service since last year, marking a rise of 13%.
Cllr Shellina Prendergast (Con), KCC’s cabinet member for education, has described the pressure on the county council as “unprecedented”.
She said: “The biggest financial challenge continuing to face the council as a whole is the funding of support for special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
“KCC’s new budget will seek to address the pressures from the rising demand of transport.”
Her comments were made yesterday (Jan 11) during an online debate involving KCC’s education committee.
Free and discounted school transport is offered to some youngsters with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Some of the costs are covered by KCC.
Hiring buses and taxis is becoming harder to arrange for KCC because of driver shortages, rising demand from families and growing financial costs.
It comes as County Hall chiefs have laid out the authority’s draft budget proposals for April 2022 to April 2023, which will likely amount to more than £1 billion.
From April, KCC is pledging to spend an extra £2.5million on school transport, which may have knock-on effects for spending or cuts to other council services.
In helping to balance the books, new arrangements are being trialled, including new pick-up points and for parents to pay for the use of other travel schemes.
Initiatives include the Kent Travel Saver, which is proposed to increase in cost from September 2022.
A long-term solution is being sought, which includes enrolling more children with special needs into mainstream secondary schools and colleges.
Cllr Prendergast said: “In essence, we need to find a better way of managing future demands by supporting more children to attend their local schools, rather than being placed in the more specialist provision miles away from their homes.”
Former KCC cabinet member Cllr Gary Cooke (Con), of Maidstone South East, said he “strongly” supported the move but voiced a “word of caution”.
He suggested more financial investment would need to go into mainstream education to make the county council’s vision a reality.
He said: “Moving to greater inclusion in mainstream to reduce the pressure on transportation would lead to better outcomes for children, if they have not got to travel so far.
“It’s not just about money, but better outcomes for children as well.”
How many children’s journeys could have been paid for has KCC not contributed £Ms on the useless Thanet Parkway station?