Cash-strapped councils are attempting to fill their financial black holes by charging families of disabled college learners for transport, an FE Week investigation has found.
At least six councils across England have begun consulting on the proposals over the past year, with some asking families to pay as much as £933 per year.
Campaigners and sector leaders hit out at the “unfair” plans and accused the councils of treating young people with special education needs and/or disabilities (SEND) as “scapegoats” for their budget-cutting measures.
They say the policy will create more barriers to education and will make “marginal” savings to councils’ growing budget deficits.
The Local Government Association has warned that almost one in five English local authorities could be forced to issue a section 114 notice this year, meaning they are unable to balance their budgets.
Middlesbrough, Somerset and Dudley councils warned this week they are heading for section 114 notices and would join the likes of Birmingham, Nottingham and Croydon councils who have recently declared they are unable to balance their budgets.
Post-16 SEND transport typically involves taxis or minibuses for learners who cannot travel by public transport on their own or with a guardian.
Councils can opt to fund post-16 SEND transport as they do not have a statutory obligation to provide free or subsidised travel to learners over school leaving age. They do however have a duty to arrange a transport policy for young people up to age 19 but are entitled to charge for the arrangements. They should also prioritise young people with SEND up to the age of 25.
Clare Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Specialist Colleges (NATSPEC), told FE Week that post-16 transport is the “easiest thing” for councils to cut because of the lack of statutory obligations.
Eleanor Wright, legal officer at SOS! Special Educational Needs, said it was “certainly true that LAs generally looking for savings are trying to limit school and college transport costs, especially in areas where it is discretionary”.
The latest guidance from the Department for Education from 2019, says local authorities can ask families to contribute to transport costs but ensure it is affordable and allow support for those on low incomes, such as the 16 to 19 bursary fund, administered by education providers.
Specifically, the DfE guidance said that transport policies should not adversely impact particular groups.
“For example, as young people with special educational needs and disabilities are more likely to remain in education or training longer than their peers, any contribution sought from these families would need to allow for the fact they may have to contribute for longer,” it states.
The Kent conundrum
Kent County Council this week became the latest council to propose post-16 SEND transport cuts to help address a £54.2 million shortfall. According to KCC’s latest transport expenditure documents, it spent £2.3 million on post-16 SEND transport in 2020/21, a drop from the nearly £2.9 million spent in 2019/20.
But the council said the cost of providing SEND transport for over 16s has risen in recent years, and the number of learners requiring an education, health, and care plan (EHCP) in its area has soared by 80 per cent since 2018.
“The provision of transport for this group is inevitably more complex,” a Kent County Council (KCC) spokesperson said.
“KCC remains one of the last councils to offer such a broad discretionary post-16 travel policy, over and above what is required by law. While we have worked hard to continue this position for many years, it cannot be maintained at the expense of fulfilling our statutory duties to all learners.”
In November, the council approved the introduction of a £500 fee per SEND learner per annum from 2024/25, discounted to £299 for low-income families.
The £500 so-called financial contribution is the same as what families spend on a Kent 16+ Travel Saver transport pass. The council reaped almost £1.5 million from mainstream post-16 transport charges in 2020/21.
Hayley Harding, a SEND campaigner from Let us Learn Too, said: “It just seems like another way of almost scapegoating disabled kids’ families, rather than actually dealing with the problem. I think it’s going to be a blanket [charge] as well, so it’s not necessarily based on needs.”
Combined with a measure to reduce the offer of transport for post-19 students, the policy will save £781,000, according to Kent County Council’s revised draft budget outlined last week.
The policy will continue to make savings for the council from its transport budget into subsequent years: £541,000 in 2025/26 and £300,000 in 2026/27.
The Oaks Specialist College in Kent criticised the measure as being at the expense of the education of young people with SEND.
Chief executive Gordon Tillman said: “We fully understand the financial pressures that all local authorities now face and are sympathetic to the situation that they have been placed in by central government.
“However, making marginal savings to a multi-million-pound budget at an expense to young people with SEND and their families will not solve any of these financial issues and will only create more barriers to the much-needed continuing education and the ‘lifelong learning’ that this country and the economy needs.”
Elsewhere in the county, Rebecca O’Neill, chief executive of Brogdale CIC Group in Sittingbourne, said it is seeking to source its own minibus – a £20,000 to 25,000 cost – as a response to the policy change but hasn’t found one yet.
She added that asking parents to pay for transport could result in a drop in attendance.
“Asking families to pay for the transport with little to no lead in time and no ability for services to change, set up new provisions and with no funds available to do so is not fair or right,” she told FE Week.
“Also, it may force the larger colleges to diversify their offer and push out of the market the smaller providers.”
The change has meant more stress and bureaucracy on parents with SEND children. Nicola, a Kent-based parent with a 19-year-old daughter at Ripplevale specialist college, said disability benefits do not cover everything families must spend.
“Everything feels like a constant battle, in all honesty,” she told FE Week. “Children with special needs already cost families more money than children without these needs.”
Slew of councils rolling back SEND help
Meanwhile, Havering Council in London is proposing to introduce a charge for post-16 transport assistance to address a £3 million deficit in its transport budget.
In 2023/24, it spent £467,960 on post-16 SEND transport.
The council’s preferred option, like some other councils, is to expand the use of the personal transport budget, which could pay towards the cost of booking a taxi, or a travel pass, or ride sharing. The budget currently amounts to £9 per day, with a maximum of four journeys per day.
Havering Council told FE Week that it will be taking results from a resident’s survey to a cabinet meeting this March.
Elsewhere, Shropshire Council is due to decide on its proposed removal of all discretionary home-to-school travel assistance.
In 2022/23, the council spent £543,281 to send 106 post-16 SEND students to specialist FE colleges. It asks for £933 in contributing for the transport a full year, and £299 for families on benefits, to the £5,223 average cost per year of providing the service.
Documents show that of this year’s 104 students, 65 are paying the higher rate of contribution and 39 students paying the lower rate.
At the time, Kirstie Hurst-Knight, Shropshire Council’s Cabinet member for children and education, said: “Nobody wants or likes to change or withdraw services or funding, but – as is well known – across the council we are having to make savings in the face of severe budget pressures.”
A Shropshire Council spokesperson said: “No decision has yet been made to the future of SEND school transport. We are currently undertaking engagement activities with our local SEND communities to work with us to develop ideas and possible solutions so that SEND transport supports those with the greatest needs and delivers better outcomes for children and young people with SEND and their families.”
Other councils include Brighton and Hove City Council who voted in November to charge £547 a year towards the cost of taxis and minibuses for SEND transport.
Around the same time, a Dorset councillor warned of a “perfect storm” from rising SEND transport spending. The council charged in 2022/23 a £825 contribution, plus a 50 per cent discount for those on benefits.
Wokingham Borough Council followed suit, changing its policy to introduce the same charge as Dorset for the 2023/24 academic year.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The level of support provided for students using public transport is for local authorities to decide and the arrangements do not necessarily have to include free or subsidised travel. Many local authorities do offer some form of subsidised transport, and this combined with the 16-19 bursary is intended to provide financial support to those students from low-income households.”