Cuts to SEN transport threatens education and futures of young disabled people across bucks

Sarah-Jayne and Charlie Gardner
Sarah-Jayne and Charlie Gardner

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.

This week, we spoke to Sarah-Jayne and Charlie Gardner who use the free transport service so Charlie can get to College in Amersham where he studies music production.
They currently live in social housing in Aylesbury.

BCC have now agreed to scrap special educational needs transport for children over 16, which means Charlie can no longer get to college.

Charlie's education has been fraught with issues, and disturbed several times by the failure of Buckinghamshire County Council to land him with an appropriate placement.

This has caused Charlie, 18, significant distress and he has become depressed and suicidal. He also is autistic , has ADHD, and severe mental health issues. Charlie has had multiple operations and procedures on his spine and brain too.

His mobility is also significantly restricted due to chronic widespread pain, and he is currently a blue badge holder.

He is academically talented but has not had the opportunities to achieve.

Charlie is trying to get his English and Maths GCSE's alongside his diploma in Music production, so he can pursue a career.

Sarah Jayne Garner, Charlie's Mum said: "I can't overstate how much this will affect Charlie's life.

"I am autistic, physically disabled and have severe mental health issues, which means I cannot drive Charlie to Amersham.

"His step dad is my full time carer and has health issues as well, and also had to retire from his job because of mental health issues.

"This course is a lifeline to Charlie, who has tried to commit suicide on multiple occasions because of how BCC have passed him from pillar to post in placements and schools.

"This is his chance to get a career and potentially change his life for the better.

"To take this away from him now would be absolutely devastating. The council is robbing him of his chance to make a career, and get the qualifications he needs to live as normal a life and access society as possible."

The Garners live in social housing, and by their own admission, are struggling financially.

Sarah Jayne explains that their financial situation was not helped after shelling out £10,000 in legal fees in an education tribunal dispute with Baker Small and BCC, who had a highly controversial agreement with Buckinghamshire County Council.

Baker Smalls main role was challenging parents who request support or want a school place that meets the needs of for their disabled child.

But the firm triggered an internet row by posting a series of messages on Twitter that appeared to boast about a recent win and mock the parents of disabled children in 2016.

Charlie started falling behind in his studies at primary school after the multiple failures of BCC to find him an appropriate placement. Sarah says Charlie was "broken" by failing to find something suitable for him, falling into depression and trying to take his own life numerous times.

Sarah says Charlie is desperate to get on with his studies. He is a music producer in his spare time under the name ‘Solomon Em’, and his music is available on spotify and other music outlets. The course that is under threat from these changes would be instrumental in him getting a proper job in this area, which is unfair when he’s missed most of his education already.

Sarah said: "Charlie has spent the last two years or more trying to commit suicide. This course is an outlet for him and a reason to stay alive. This gives him a reason to keep going. If they take this away from him I am very worried.

"With the help of a psychiatrist recently we've got him to a more stable place. I don't know what impact it would have on him if he was not able to complete his course.

"It's always the most vulnerable that get thrown on the pile when cuts are made to services. If he doesn't get the life skills he needs from this course, I fear for his future."

BCC are now trying to 'train SEN kids to use public transport', however Sarah suggests that the work they have taken up with Charlie has been minimal.

Sarah said: "They are trying to get Charlie to use public transport - but with his condition, this is fraught with dangers and he’s had about 2 sessions on this in 2 years..

Sarah concedes that it is legal for BCC to take away free transport to SEN kids after 16, but suggests that they have not taken into account the devastating consequences this could have for SEN lives.

"Charlie wants to get his GCSEs and his diploma, and live as normal life as possible. This decision will ensure that he can't do that."

Sarah has also hit out at the consultation process BCC put out so people could 'have their say' on the changes.

Sarah said: "I couldn't get down to the face to face consultations because of my physical disabilities. Because of the medication I take, I find it really hard to read online articles, so the very wordy and lengthy online consultation was also a nightmare for me.

"This must have been a massive issue, because of the nature of the consultation a lot of people would have been in the same boat as me - with physical and mental impairments meaning they couldn't accurately get across their stories in how the changes would hinder their lives."

In response to this story, Buckinghamshire County Council issued the following statement:

"Students with a special educational need, a disability or both [that attend college] can apply for a bursary to assist with costs. The bursaries provide funding through the Education Funding Agency and gives a guaranteed £1,200 per year to; young people in care, care leavers, young people claiming Income Support or Universal Credit or those in receipt of Employment Support Allowance and Disability Living Allowance. Bursary funding is also awarded by schools and colleges who apply their own criteria to decide how much is paid.

Mike Appleyard, Cabinet Members for Children's Services, said: "We do not wish to cause families concern about school transport. We will be contacting all families affected very soon to ensure they are aware of the bursary funding that is available to them.

"For eligible SEND children, we will also be offering independent travel training when aged between 14 and 19 years. This will support young people in gaining independence and their journey into adulthood."

"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. Costs for SEND transport have increased by over £3m in the last five years (from around £6m to £9m)."