Nov 18, 2023, (UK) The Guardian: Soaring special needs school transport costs ‘unsustainable’, say councils https://amp.theguardian.com/education/2023/nov/18/soaring-special-needs-school-transport-costs-unsustainable-say-councils
Soaring costs of school transport for children with special educational needs is causing councils in England to warn of service cuts and potential insolvency, according to local authority leaders.
The County Council Network (CCN), which represents mainly rural local authorities in England, says its 37 members are spending more than £700m [$872M] a year on school transport for 85,000 children with special education needs and disabilities (Send), compared with less than £400m [$498M] five years ago.
Councils have blamed the sharply rising costs on an acute shortage of Send school places and lack of competition for specialist transport contracts.
A report by the network forecasts that spending on special needs transport could triple within a decade, to more than £1.1bn [$1.4B] by 2027.
Increasing numbers of children with complex needs have meant a surge in individual travel arrangements, so that 31,500 children are now travelling by taxi or car service, while 31,900 are transported by minibuses within the 37 areas, including rural counties such as Cumberland, Devon and Norfolk.
Roger Gough, the children’s services spokesperson for the CCN, said that while councils were working hard to provide transport services, the reality was “a mounting tide of costs in Send transport, exacerbated by long distances travelled in large rural areas, complex needs and parental expectations”.
Gough said: “The costs we are facing now are simply unsustainable and threaten council finances in the short term. That’s why we are calling on the government to provide an emergency injection of resources at next week’s autumn statement.”
The CCN said the cost pressures were contributing to a £4bn [$5B] total projected deficit over the next three years, with one in 10 councils “unsure or not confident” they could avoid insolvency this year.
Hampshire council, which has said it is facing a “financial meltdown”, described special needs school transport as “currently the most significant area of financial risk” that it faced, with a £9m [$11M] overspend on its budget.
“This is largely attributable to an acute shortage of [special needs] school places and lack of competition for specialist transport arrangements within the provider market. This is currently resulting in price pressure of around 13% per year,” the council’s cabinet was advised last month.
Hampshire is considering reducing its service to the statutory minimum to save money. One cheaper option is providing minibuses to schools that can find their own drivers.
The increase in demand followed the government’s 2014 Send changes, after which the number of children eligible for education, health and care plans (EHCPs) more than doubled, from 105,000 to 230,000.
Many EHCPs specify that a child should attend a particular school, making councils legally obliged to transport tens of thousands of young people over long distances across large, rural counties. The CCN said the number of children travelling to special schools had increased by 24% in the last five years.
Many parents with children with qualifying EHCPs say local authorities can be reluctant to advertise or provide transport services.
In June, the Department for Education (DfE) issued new guidance on school transport that forced local authorities to clearly state their transport policies and to be aware of their duties under the Equality Act not to discriminate on the basis of disability.
The DfE said every child deserved to have access to education, and its recent Send improvement plan, published in March, aimed to make sure parents did not have to struggle to get support.
“We are also putting significant investment into the high needs budget, which is increasing by a further £440m [$548M] for 2024-25, bringing total funding to £10.5bn [$13B]– an increase of over 60% since 2019-20,” the DfE said.