By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
An independent inquiry into major delays in sourcing transport to and from school for children with special educational needs in Kent is likely to be held.
Kent County Council (KCC) says a “thorough” and “transparent” review must take place.
It comes after hundreds of families were left in the lurch last month over a delayed “shake-up” to school travel.
Some buses and taxis did not turn up at family homes and dozens of children were unable to go to school last month.
Vicky Evans, operations manager at Kent Pact, empowering SEND parents and carers to have their say, said: “The impact that can have on family life is unimaginable.”
KCC leader Cllr Roger Gough (Con) has apologised for the “distress” and “concern” caused. An action improvement plan will be launched.
Cllr Bryan Sweetland (Con), who is KCC’s cabinet member for communications, described the situation as a “collective management failure”.
He said: “I have been here 13 years and this is the worst mistake I have seen.”
Their comments were made during a public meeting involving KCC’s cabinet meeting at County Hall, Maidstone.
Kent county councillors said “lessons would be learnt” as they were committed to radically improving their service.
This comes as demand for SEN transport has continued and seen a “significant increase” in pupil numbers.
KCC sought to source contracts for more transport to provide extra capacity for more than 5,500 young people by September 2021.
However the county council faced “slips” and delays in finalising arrangements, continuing into February 2022.
Around 26% of children remained without allocated transport by half term on February 14, which was reduced to 6% by February 21.
This meant some parents could not go to work, while others were forced to make their own arrangements to get their children to school.
KCC has offered to reimburse mileage and expenses to any parents affected.
Parents were left “angry” and “frustrated”, according to Kent PACT.
Emails were not responded to while phone calls to the council office were not answered or returned, the group added.
Ms Evans warned there was a “huge gap” in communication with parents. Kent PACT said it could not happen again.
Alison White, chair of trustees at Kent PACT, said: “Families have reported feeling abandoned by KCC because of no response.
“Emails are going into a black hole, telephones unanswered and voicemails not responded to.”
Ms Evans added: “They had to choose [between] paying a bill or getting a taxi for their child to school. That is the harsh reality.”
Cllr Shellina Prendergast (Con), who has made efforts to respond to every email from parents, said: “It is really important to recognise and acknowledge the pain we have put children and families under.”
Simon Jones, who is KCC’s corporate director for transport, suggested an independent inquiry be held.
He said: “We offer those affected an unreserved apology.”
Mr Jones added: “We have identified a need for a thorough and impartial review.”
Matt Dunkley, KCC’s corporate director for children, young people and education, warned the saga had further “undermined” trust between the parents and the authority.
Cllr Karen Constantine, who represents Ramsgate residents, said: “I’ve been contacted to intervene for more than 20 local children who have been left high and dry by this facile and stupid decision to change, without prior warning or proper consideration, SEN travel arrangements. I’m often cross with some of the more shortsighted decisions by the ruling Kent Tories but this one made me fume.
“KCC have now sorted out some of the problems they created but I have at least half a dozen families are still left struggling, some haven’t even heard back from KCC. I’ve gone back repeatedly to request KCC to get this mess sorted out.
“For some children these changes, and the subsequent chaos, has really derailed them. Meaning it could take many months for them to settle down again. These months are so important. KCC should always consult with parents and sense check change prior to implementation. Real harm has been done to some vulnerable people.
“I’m also worried that there are parents and carers who are struggling on their own. If anyone needs support I’m happy for them to contact me.”
Initially, an internal review will be carried out by KCC’s scrutiny committee on Tuesday next week (Mar 8).