In a series of shocking interviews, the Bucks Herald talks to people who have been affected by Buckinghamshire County Council's cruel cuts to free transport for Special Educational Needs Children.
Buckinghamshire County Council have voted to remove free home to school transport for special educational needs children (SEND) for over 16s, which is set to have devastating consequences.
The decision to charge for school transport for students over the age of 16 with SEND was made on Monday 4 March. From September 2019, the County Council will be requesting a contribution to the cost of home to school transport for children with SEND who are over the age of 16. This will replace the free transport offer currently in place.
This week we've spoken to Stephen Connolly about his daughter Agnes, who is 15 and will be 16 this month, and how this will affect the family.
Stephen says Agnes loves the school she is currently placed at, saying it provides an atmosphere where she can thrive.
Agnes has autism, and is currently studying for her GCSEs.
She currently travels 45 minutes in a taxi to a specialist school in Begbroke, just north of Oxford, because there is no suitable education provision within in Buckinghamshire.
Several other young people from Bucks travel to the school each day, and will be impacted by the changes when they reach 16.
However, BCC have decided to change arrangements for funding home to school transport for special educational needs pupils, which will place additional financial burdens on many families, in some cases to contribute up to £1000 a year for transport, because there is no suitable provision closer to home.
“Agnes suffers from anxiety and would struggle on public transport, which in our case would take her almost 2 hours each way, assuming buses and trains ran to time. My commute to London each day is less than that.”
BCC are obligated to provide transport for children in school up to 16, even though recent changes in the law require young people to be in full time education and training until they are 18.
Agnes’s Education and Health Care Plan covers her needs until she reaches 25.
Stephen feels that parents of SEN children have been hung out to dry, saying by the repeated failures of the council to provide in county placements, and now constraining funding for travel, they are being shoehorned into home schooling.
Stephen said: "If the county provided enough specialist places locally they would save themselves a lot of money in the long run. They make conditions for education so difficult, with long travel times, and patchy provision that they almost force SEN kids to be home schooled.
"Parents just get fed up of being passed pillar to post, often incurring legal bills just to get the education their children deserve.
"Not to mention the legal bills run up by the council when parents have to litigate.
”Once parents of SEN kids sign up for home schooling, the council just wash their hands of them. They then use it as an excuse not to build a school, or to provide in county provision, because they can claim the demand isn’t there, even though it is”
Buckinghamshire Disability Service, (BuDs) have expressed severe concerns about the County Council's intention to cut home-to-school transport. They described the reforms as "ill-thought out" and "potentially very damaging".
Stephen said: "I can well understand the challenges faced by the council in the light of consistent cuts in central funding, but many children have no option but to travel significant distances to school because the council have planned provision so poorly.
"The Council are not to blame for the swinging cuts in local funding – the blame for that rests with our Members of Parliament and the Government’s unnecessary austerity agenda – but the County Council are entirely responsible for the lack of planning around Special Needs provision within their local offer.
"Parents of disabled children are now expected to pick up the tab for the County Council’s poor stewardship of scant resources.
"Agnes doesn't have a specific cognitive difficulty, and is taking some GCSEs this year, but there is no setting within the local offer that can meet her needs and has to undertake an arduous journey each day to North Oxford and back from High Wycombe.
"This is far from ideal, as it is often a real challenge to get her in a state of mind where she can face the taxi ride.
"If the council had made arrangements for suitable provision within county lines, Agnes wouldn't have to face a long and stressful journey at the start and end of each day, and County wouldn't also be funding incredibly expensive fees for a school operated outside the Local Offer.
"This just isn’t a sensible use of money. Where are the local schools for children like Agnes? With the right start in life, they can get their GCSEs and even go on to hold down a job. So many autistic young people are being failed, and It's just unfair that parents are being expected to contribute to costs deriving from poor planning.
Mike Appleyard, Cabinet Members for Children's Services, said: "The changes we are introducing to home to school transport for young people over 16 with special educational needs and/or disability (SEND) will be introduced alongside increased support.
"This will help them to travel independently so that, where possible, they can develop essential life skills. We will also make sure that young people and their parents are given information to access bursary payments to contribute to costs of their transport. In this way, we aim to minimise disruption to parents, carers and young people wherever possible.
“We recognise that change can create uncertainties and so we will put in place support early, working with families to understand what these changes will mean to them. For all current transport users that will mean understanding what the impacts are on the ability to travel independently. Where independent travel training and a bursary application is not an option, we explore other choices available.”
“The changes we have introduced to transport for students with a SEND match national policy. We do not wish to cause families concern about school transport and we are continuing with specialist transport support to schools and colleges, but asking for a contribution towards the cost of the transport. Costs for SEND transport have increased by over £3m in the last five years (from around £6m to £9m).”