One council’s controversial decision to make families of students with disabilities or special needs to pay for college transport costs has come under fire from an autism charity and the National Union of Students.
Sunderland City Council started charging families £600 per academic year to transport each post-16 student with educational needs or disabilities (SEND) at the beginning of September to college – prompting heavy criticism from the National Autistic Society.
“This news will be really worrying for many local young autistic people and their families who rely on support from the council to get to college,” said Tim Nicholls (pictured), policy manager at the charity.
“It’s essential that councils understand the hidden needs of autistic people and the challenges they can face when travelling – and take these into account when planning their budgets”.
It’s essential that councils understand the hidden needs of autistic people
Previously, the council had paid the full costs for all SEND students’ transport to post-16 courses, but now it will only pay out any costs incurred by families beyond that initial £600.
However, FE Week found in February that a number of councils in the north-east were planning to start asking for a financial contribution.
Sunderland was the first council to go through with the charge, but Newcastle City Council also confirmed this week that its own plans to introduce similar charges have been approved by councillors, but not yet implemented.
A spokesperson for Sunderland City Council told FE Week: “Following consultation, the city council’s cabinet agreed that a means tested funding contribution of £651.
“However, the council is continuing to support students with SEND and families with increased choice and flexibility in how they travel from school or college.
“This includes putting extra resources towards encouraging independent travel (by public transport), where appropriate.”
According to Mr Nicholls, many of these students’ needs “are not immediately obvious”.
Autistic people can find it hard to plan and carry out a journey
“For instance,” he said, “autistic people can find it hard to plan and carry out a journey, be extremely sensitive to sound or become highly anxious when faced with unexpected changes.
“This can make travelling on a busy or loud bus filled with people they don’t know really challenging, if not impossible. In such cases, travelling by a mini-bus or taxi may be the only way they can get to school.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, was also highly critical of the charge.
“Transport costs for many students can be a true barrier to their successful participation and achievement in post-16 learning,” he said.
“It is particularly disappointing to see a local council introduce means testing for the transport costs.”
James Elliott, the NUS disabled students’ officer, said he was “very disappointed” about the new charge.
“The government should stop local council funding cuts, so they can provide vital services such as this,” he added.
In February, the AoC called on the government to review how councils fund travel to colleges for post-16 learners with special needs, but this did not happen.
Asked by FE Week if there would now be a change of heart, a Department for Education spokesperson said that providing transport to for young people with SEND was “a matter for councils”.
“However, we expect them to put appropriate arrangements in place and make decisions that are best suited to local circumstances,” they said.