Call to overhaul “flawed” rules for school transport

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Children in school

There are fresh calls for an overhaul of ‘flawed’ rules for school transport which are burdening the county council’s finances.

In March, the County Councils Network (CCN) called on the next government to reform the school transport system for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Data revealed that costs have doubled to £800m for local authorities in county areas over the last five years.

CCN’s analysis revealed that council expenditure on SEND travel costs could rise nationally by 2027/28 to £2.2bn, with county areas responsible for £1.1bn of that figure.

According to the latest figures revealed by Hampshire County Council, the local authority estimates that the total cost for school transport in 2026/27 will be £95,284,165, an increase of 19.68 per cent from 25/26 when the figure was forecasted to be £79,615,102.

This increase is driven by the increased number of pupils eligible for education, health and care plans (EHCPs), documents outlining their additional needs, the support required and desired outcomes. These set out the support individuals can receive, including school transport.

As of January 2024, the number of maintained EHCPs in Hampshire local authority was 16,065. But by 2030/31, the county council is forecast to have around 28,000 pupils who will have an EHCP if unmitigated.

In 2022/23, the demand for SEND transport rose to 3,100 children and 4,000 for 2023/24.

Councillor David Drew said that the fundamental problem is that the council “can’t carry on” with the situation “anymore” and that fundamental changes must be made within the framework.

Director of Children’s Services Stuart Ashley agreed with the comments and added that he has been lobbying the Department of Education because “this is unsustainable”.

Councillor Phil North raised questions about who “medicalised” those children and why, since “if we continued in this trajectory, almost every child will have an EHCP at a certain point of time”, he said.

Mr Ashley explained that in 2014, with a stable number of EHCPs of around 6,000 at that time, regulations for special education needs were more “tight” and “quite specific”, with a clear process for parents that had to provide “clear evidence” that the child needed special education.

“Otherwise, the assumption was that schools will meet these meets,” he said.

“The regulation changed in 2015, and although it was well-intentioned, they were fundamentally flawed.”

He said that now, despite headteachers, education psychologists and other professionals suggesting a child’s needs can be met at a mainstream school, parents challenge that decision and start a tribunal process, which nationally, 98 per cent found favour to parents.

“That’s because regulations draw tribunals to the conclusion that parents’ preferences are always that professional judgement,” he added, saying it was “criminal”.

While he said the council wants the best for children, he was worried too many children are sent to a special school.

Christie Franklin, a parent governor for special schools, highlighted that the process parents need to follow to apply for a SEND school is “not easy” and requires them to provide evidence to support their application.

Mr Ashey said he doesn’t blame parents, adding: “I’m blaming the regulation, which is flawed.

“And you are right; it is a very tricky process and makes them feel they have to battle to get the very best for their children, but that’s the system, not the parents. The system is wrong.”

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