“I am at a loss” – Parents of special needs children hit out at council after school transport mishap
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
A number of pupils with special needs have been left in limbo after the county council re-tendered the school transport network in Suffolk.
Many parents claim they were forced to repeatedly chase contractors to try and find out if their route, time and personal attendant staff and drivers have changed – with some fearful their children may be collected by strangers on the first day of term.
Families with pupils at The Bridge School in Ipswich were informed in July that the transport network had been altered, and were provided with the details of the company that would be catering for their children from September.
If assigned to a new supplier, parents and carers were encouraged to request a meet and greet by calling the company – which the council said would be “a good opportunity to discuss any specific issues and concerns for your child”.
A letter distributed to parents by the Specialised Transport team said: “Everything has been put in place to ensure that transport runs smoothly but you may also want to telephone the company in advance to discuss the exact time when your child will be picked up.”
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However many claim that they were unable to get in touch with their respective suppliers, leaving them uncertain about arrangements for the new term.
It was a similar situation for some parents at Hillside Special School in Sudbury, who were also affected by the changes.
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In some cases, parents did not know when staff would be arriving at their home to pick their child up for school – or even what they looked like, or which vehicle they would be driving.
Many claim that the uncertainty caused unnecessary diruption and stress for some children who are already predisposed to anxiety and often struggle with unexpected change.
A spokeswoman for Suffolk County Council (SCC) said officers had met with providers “to remind them of their responsibilities”.
The news comes as education chiefs warned that Suffolk will need three or four new special schools in the next two years to cope with soaring demand for special education needs.
Current forecasts are for an overspend of £1.5-2million this year alone.
What do the affected families have to say?
Sam Everett, whose seven-year-old son Daniel attends The Bridge School, said the problem had been going on for some time.
She argued that the council should take more responsibility for organising travel arrangements for special needs children and not leave it to parents to liaise with contractors.
Mrs Everett added that she had to leave her job last year because her son had difficulties with the service.
Her son, who is on the autistic spectrum, would sometimes become very distressed using the transport – which could vary from a minibus, to a taxi, to another type of vehicle on any given day.
She said that new parents often don’t know what is going to come up on the driveway on a school morning, and are sometimes greeted by a stranger.
“I have been chasing them for months,” Mrs Everett said. “Sometimes you don’t know what’s going to come up on the drive.”
She claimed that the confusion often had an impact on the children themselves, as well as the staff who met them at the school gates.
“I have had issues with Daniel not wanting to get into the transport,” she said. “The frontline staff have to deal with the aftermath of the children coming in not happy.
“Children are part of the community – they need to be supported. If the support is a burden to us, how does that make sense?”
The mother-of-two added that parents with multiple children were often hit the hardest.
“Because my daughter is starting mainstream [school] I have to get her there on time or you potentially get a fine,” she said.
“We are lucky to have a proactive, empathic and organised personal attendant who contacts us out of her working hours with news/changes. If only Suffolk County Council had similar natured staff then the vulnerable families in Suffolk wouldn’t be feeling their austerity cuts so harshly.”
Mother-of-three Sandra Moore, whose four-year-old son Blake is due to start at Hillside Special School this week, claims she has received no communication from the council – and has been forced to arrange her own transport.
She said Blake would ideally be attending The Bridge School in his home town of Ipswich, but due to a lack of availability he was allocated a school place over 20 miles away in Sudbury.
Despite chasing the council on a number of occasions and even reaching out to her local MP, Ms Moore has been given no details of the supplier assigned to Blake’s route.
“It’s really difficult for him because he doesn’t speak,” she said. “He’s got the development of a two year old.”
Ms Moore explained that Blake would need special support and requested a meet and greet, but to no avail.
“I have left so many messages, and no one’s called me back,” she said.
Ms Moore received a telephone call from Suffolk County Council on Friday, August 31 instructing her to fill in an application form, and was told everything should be in place by the start of term on Thursday, September 6.
However shortly afterwards she received an email saying she had to wait 10 working days for a response.
“They promised us he would be on the minibus with six other children from Ipswich,” she said. “We are fortunate that I have got a car.
“They have known that he is going to this school since June. It has all been left to the last minute. I tried at the beginning of August to arrange this myself [but] it says refer to your contact at Suffolk County Council.
“I am at a loss really. It’s horrendous. They don’t seem accountable to anybody.”
Christian Appleford, a parent representative working with the Interim Executive Board in place at The Bridge School, said the communication by the council had been “embarrassingly woeful”.
“It is disappointing that at a time of poor relations, lack of communication and distrust from many parents in regards to the LA, another barrier and problem is built causing disruption, anxiety, stress and inevitably student meltdown,” he said.
“There have been disregard for EHCPs (Education, Health and Care Plans) in relation to diagnosis and identified support/actions needed which are stated but have not even been considered prior to putting students with new providers.
“There has been no joined up thinking and the communication from Suffolk transport has been embarrassingly woeful to many parents and has created unneeded logistical concerns which have put some families in turmoil.
“How this whole situation has been handled makes it feel like there was one step forwards but now with two big steps back.”
Helen Barber, parent to Jack who attends the Primary Campus, said: “I think this is another inconsiderate move by the LA for an already turbulent time for children with additional needs, especially those attending The Bridge.
“Better co-ordination and communication is needed. The simplest of changes can make big challenges for these children, and their families.
“Parents and carers shouldn’t be left floundering, waiting, chasing and co-ordinating for services that someone is paid a full-time wage to undertake.”
Another parent, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the council had failed to provide vital information to transport staff – putting vulnerable children at risk.
They said: “There is a dire lack of information given to the transport staff. My youngster needs a minimum of one-to-one and in certain circumstances requires two-to-one, but no info has been given to transport staff so if there was ever a break-down or accident, and the children had to be taken off of the bus before arriving at school, I’m afraid that the driver/escort may be unable to adequately keep the children safe.”
What does the council have to say?
A spokeswoman for Suffolk County Council (SCC) confirmed that officers had met with providers “to remind them of their responsibilities”.
The spokeswoman said: “We aim to give parents as much notice as possible when services are re-tendered, so that necessary arrangements can be made.
“We understand that parents often wish to arrange a meet and greet with the driver ahead of the first day of term. We therefore provide details for parents to contact the provider directly, giving both parties flexibility in arranging this meeting and to discuss the pick-up and drop off times for the coming school year.
“In the event that parents have difficulty contacting their transport provider, we are happy to assist in putting them in touch. We have met with providers to remind them of their responsibilities.
Regarding Sandra Moore’s case, the spokesperson said: “Where transport is required, parents should complete a home to school transport application ahead of the school term.
“On this occasion, an application was not received. When the parent contacted the council in August, they were advised to complete an application, which was received on 1st September 2018.
“We are asking families that have not yet had new transport confirmed to ensure that they have made an application. Any parent who has not yet made an application, can check their child’s eligibility and apply at https://www.suffolkonboard.com/home-to-school-transport/.”
She added: “We aim to process any transport applications which are received by July 2018, ahead of the start of term, giving families time to arrange for ‘meet and greets’.
“Please be aware that any families who have submitted a transport application after July 2018 and have not yet had transport confirmed, may need to consider making alternative arrangements for the first few days of term.
“We regularly review our processes to continually improve our services.
“If any parents continue to have difficulties they should contact Suffolk County Council’s Passenger Transport team via email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 0345 606 6173, or visit www.suffolkonboard.com.”
What is the council’s role in school transport provision?
SCC has a responsibility to provide travel support for children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND).
The general home-to-school policy of the county council is that free transport is provided only for children of compulsory school age (five years up to 16 years) who are under eight years of age and live two miles or more from the catchment or nearest school; or are eight years of age and over and live three miles or more from the catchment or nearest school.
However some children are entitled to free travel however far they live from the school if they have an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP) or statement of Special Educational Needs (SEN) and cannot walk because of their SEN, a disability or mobility problem.
Recommendations were put forward to the county council’s cabinet to adopt option two - a phased introduction of cutbacks over seven years which will mean that free school transport will only be available to pupils’ nearest school, not others in the catchment area.
Despite more than 70% of respondents being strongly against the recommendation, the decision went ahead.