Council rapped for failing to meet student’s SEND transport costs

Expert warns 'most local authorities are trying to cut costs' through post-16 SEND transport

Expert warns 'most local authorities are trying to cut costs' through post-16 SEND transport

15 Jun 2023, 18:10

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A mother has been awarded almost £3,500 in compensation after a council refused to pay to transport her son, who suffers with anxiety, to college.

The young adult, who has an education, health and care plan, spent three academic years being driven to and from college by his family as Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council “failed to recognise its duty to arrange free transport”, a report by the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman found.

The review also highlighted an inadequate appeals process and poor record-keeping that led to long delays in addressing the mother’s concerns.

The council has agreed to apologise to the mother and reimburse her fuel costs and for the “distress, uncertainty and time and trouble” caused.

Local authorities do not have to provide free or subsidised post-16 travel support but have a duty to “encourage, enable and assist young people with learning difficulties/disabilities (SEND) to participate in education, up to the age of 25”, according to government guidance.

Young people with SEND qualify for free transport where a council assesses that, in order to attend education, they require transport arranged by the local authority.

Ali Fiddy, a solicitor and chief executive of the Independent Provider of Special Education Advice (IPSEA), said post-16 SEND transport was an area where “most local authorities are trying to cut costs by changing or limiting the offer”.

In a speech at the NATSPEC annual conference this week, she described the issue as a “real lottery” and “worrying issue” for families once their child leaves school at age 16. She said it was “very difficult to challenge” a council when it refuses to provide free travel for SEND learners in further education.

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman reported that the young adult in Stock-on-Tees was originally travelling to college in shared transport, paid for by the council. But, when his mother said it was no longer suitable because of his anxiety, the council failed to “properly consider the mother’s concerns or make other suitable arrangements”.

The ombudsman found the council’s post-16 transport policy “was not in line with its statutory duties”, adding that the council should have provided transport free of charge “if it considered transport necessary”. Instead it required a contribution from the mother.

The investigation also found the council’s appeals process did not follow statutory guidance – it did not offer a hearing at stage two of the complaints process, and then did not direct people who were unhappy to the ombudsman.

Additionally, the ombudsman criticised the council’s poor record-keeping: it did not have a central system for recording decisions, which would have allowed these to be accessed after staff left.

Paul Najsarek, the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: “The council’s responses to my enquiries, and its current transport policy, leaves me concerned that there are systematic issues in Stockton that may be affecting other young adult learners who have education, health and care plans.

“I am also particularly concerned that the council is not signposting parents to my office if they are unhappy with the outcome of any complaint about its appeals process.

“I am therefore pleased the council has accepted my recommendations to improve its processes and policies to ensure other young adults – and their families – are treated fairly and in line with statutory guidance.”

Stockton-on-Tees council has now agreed to pay the mother £3,432.50.

The council has also agreed to amend its letters, templates and policies to ensure they fall in line with statutory guidance and refer people to the ombudsman, and provide training and guidance to staff responsible for school and college transport on its new policy.

Councillor Bob Cook, leader of Stockton-on-Tees Borough Council, said: “We recognise the findings of the ombudsman and have offered our apologies to Ms X, who we will also reimburse for fuel costs. 

“Steps have now been taken to ensure this does not happen again, including updating the relevant policy and procedures.” 

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