Parents whose children use Special Educational Needs (SEN) home-to-school transport say they have no idea who will be driving their children, when they will be picked up or if travel arrangements are suitable for their youngsters needs due to changes in the service and a failure to keep them updated.
From February 21 there will be changes to the school transport service for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) as Kent County Council arranges new transport contracts to replace those that are coming to an end.
The authority had promised to let parents know by Friday, February 11 who their child’s new transport provider would be but some parents have not been contacted and say they have no idea how their child will be getting to school next Monday.
Kent County Council says issues have been caused a 20% rise in the number of children eligible for the SEN service, increased costs and a shortage of bus and taxi drivers.
Margate mum Phillipa Turner says she has only just found out that her 15-year-old daughter will stay with the same transport provider as previously – but only because she phoned the company direct.
She said: “It is poor that there is no personal touch from KCC, they haven’t emailed to say sorry that it is taking so long or to let me know what’s happening, there has been nothing.
“It is really confusing for the kids and that is the main thing, they need to know who is picking them up and who they are going to be with. They need to build a relationship because now child, SEN or not, is just going to get into a car with a stranger.”
Phillipa says there are also worries that some youngsters will end up on minibuses without assistants with medical knowledge, leaving drivers to deal with potentially serious situations.
Parents using the SEND transport service were notified in December that changes would be made and contracts put out to tender. They were due to be informed of the results in January but this was then put back to February 11. However, that deadline has been missed for some families who are still in the dark about their children’s transport arrangements from next term.
Another Thanet mum, who asked not to be named, said: “My son is 10 and we are from Thanet. He travels to school in Deal along with 5 others who are also now without any transport from Monday.
“I have sent three emails asking what’s going on, all of which have been ignored. I have also called, told they couldn’t tell me what was going on until the 11th. Then Friday Kent Pact tell us (not KCC) that they have failed to meet their deadline. None of us are surprised – more frustrated. Children with SEN need to time adjust, there a high chance I will have no transport from Monday and if a driver does miraculously appear I won’t be putting my child in that car/mini bus or coach without any prior notification in writing.”
‘Children unsafe and unsettled’
Another Thanet mum said: “My daughter has left side hemiplegia, she is epileptic and has learning disabilities. She is 14. She gets transported to and from school and has a care plan in place.
“It’s come to my attention from other mums that KCC have pulled the plug on this transportation without any phone call to me. There’s a school forum where parents are kicking off as children on the spectrum don’t like change, especially last minute without warning or thought for families
“My other daughter sees my youngest on the transportation in the mornings because I’m at work, think of how this will affect everyone. There will be people out of jobs, children unsafe and unsettled – this isn’t what a parent expects before a school day is set.”
Phillipa says she is expecting more disruption after KCC stated in an email that “there may be further changes during the rest of the 2021/2022.”
She said: “It is the now knowing, many of the children are autistic and this is affecting them.It all seems to come down to money.
“I was told my daughter will not be entitled to the transport at the end of the school year but I can buy a £400 bus pass. This is because she is 16 in August but she is still at school and will not suddenly no longer be autistic or anxious and able to take a bus or train to Deal.
“She has only been at her school 16 months after we were rejected for a place and transport. I had to fight for it then and will have to do it again this year. She is doing her GCSEs and it is just too much, she can’t cope.”
County Councillor Karen Constantine (Lab) said: “It goes without saying that SEND transport is extremely important for both parents and carers and the children concerned.
“Many of these children have special needs, where any change of routine can impact them very negatively and can be difficult to overcome. We should be putting the needs of these children, especially at this particularly challenging time due to Covid, absolutely front and centre.
“Yet again the Conservatives say they want to save money but end up playing roulette with the health and well-being, and education of our children.
“At the budget meeting they reluctantly accepted that their own Government had underfunded the authority by £7m and we were warned that further savings of between £15-£20m could be required. These cuts should not come from services designed to support the most vulnerable in our society.”
‘No decrease in funding’
Kent County Council says it is “deeply sorry for the anxiety and worry that our delay in contacting some (parents) is causing.”
A Kent County Council (KCC) spokesperson said: “After the February half-term, pupils who receive Special Educational Needs (SEN) home-to-school transport will see changes in the way the service is delivered.
“We totally understand how disruptive changing routines can be for some of our children and young people.
“There has been no decrease in the funding this year for SEN transport. However there has been a 20% rise in the number eligible for the SEN service, which means we are now having to support hundreds more to make their journeys to school and college.
“Coupled with the increased costs and capacity issues currently being experienced by the transport sector, we have been left with no choice but to do more to reconfigure this service to ensure that every young person gets safely to and from their place of learning.
“We have been liaising with families, schools and colleges for several months to ensure everyone is aware these changes are coming. We had hoped to be able to contact all families before the half-term holiday got underway with the exact details of what these changes will mean.
“Unfortunately, it has not been possible to update everybody affected at this stage because it has taken longer than we had anticipated to complete the work needed to allocate transport to 5,500 students.
“We want to assure the parents and their children who have not yet been notified of the details that we are working around the clock to get these arrangements finalised and will make sure all families know details of their new travel provider as soon as possible.”
On KCC’s website is says: “We expect demand for school transport to continue to grow during the next year, resulting in more eligible pupils needing school transport places. This means we may need to make further changes from the start of the new school year in September 2022 to provide school transport for pupils.”
The authority says it will refund any costs parents are required to make until their arrangements are finalised. If you need to make a claim, email receipts to firstname.lastname@example.org once your child’s vehicle is in place.