By Local Democracy Reporter Ciaran Duggan
An intense fallout from a crisis involving children with special needs and Kent school travel has caused a storm with calls for an external inquiry into the debacle.
Hundreds of disabled children were unable to get to school last month amid driver shortages and delays over new bus and taxi contractual arrangements by Kent County Council (KCC).
School buses did not turn up and parents were left in the dark. A “thorough” review is underway.
Kent County Council’s (KCC) leader Roger Gough (Con) has engaged in talks with the Local Government Association (LGA) to launch an inquiry over the handling of the crisis.
KCC’s scrutiny committee were divided over the way forward during a heated internal review at County Hall, Maidstone, this week.
Opposition parties, including Liberal Democrats and Labour, said an external independent review would be fairer and just.
Conservative backbenchers have been in favour of a “quick” and “timely” inquiry, enabling swift changes to be made.
Cllr Andy Booth (Con), KCC’s scrutiny chair, warned: “Should we go for an external review, the dates of six to nine months are blown out of the water and we are looking at a year plus.
“This will be at considerable expense to the council, which we have to be mindful of.”
Folkestone county councillor Rory Love (Con) said: “Our role is to hold that review to account, rather than commission a seperate one.”
KCC’s main opposition leader, Cllr Dr Lauren Sullivan (Lab) formally called for a full independent inquiry into the fallout, which involves the affected parents and children at its heart.
She said: “It is fair to say this has caused a huge amount of distress and this should have been avoided and arguably could have been.
“This represents another breach of trust between KCC and our SEND parents.”
Labour county councillor Mel Dawkins added: “We want a fresh pair of eyes and it will be really important to have that external view.”
Cabinet members and senior officers expressed remorseful apologies over the crisis.
Cllr Shellina Prendergast (Con), who is KCC’s cabinet member for education, said: “We never intended for this to happen and we are truly sorry.”
Problems began as KCC sought to source contracts to cater for extra capacity for 5,500 young people by September 2021.
It comes as the demand for education and health care plans (EHCPs) has continued to rise over recent years.
However the county council faced “slips” and delays in finalising arrangements, continuing into February 2022.
Around 26% of the 5,500 children remained without allocated transport at half term on February 14.
Folkestone county councillor Dylan Jeffrey (Con), a former mainstream school teacher, described the situation as a real “human life disaster”.
He said: “I have dealt with tears of despair during the process and ironically tears of joy when we got things sorted at the start of term.
“Admittedly late, there was a response and we reacted and dealt with it as best as possible under the circumstances.”
Meanwhile, 14 families are still facing difficulties in accessing SEND transport.
Kent PACT said there was a “huge gap” in communication with parents. They have warned the crisis could not happen again.
A progress report is due to be made at KCC’s next scrutiny meeting on March 23.