Derby City Council do not make it easy for Parents with Special Educational Needs (SEN) children, and it is about to get a lot worse for those whose children are over 16.
Currently, the Council provides free transport assistance to SEN students over the age of 16, provided that they are in college for more than 16 hrs a week, go to the nearest appropriate one and it is deemed that:
“they cannot use public or college transport as certified by a doctor or medical professional”
This is to be replaced by a “Points based system” of assessment. The Post-16 provision is discretionary, however the Council do have an obligation with SEN children to ensure that they can access an appropriate education and access to transport, for many, is essential for that purpose.
The complete package of free transport that the Council provides for, not only SEN children, but also for low income families, and those at Pupil Referral Units, and in Care, costs £3.2m pa. Of which £0.6m is used for the 153 SEN post-16 students. The Council wishes to save £0.2m from the £0.6m, although the consultation document is ambiguous on why it wishes to save this amount of money:
- “the Council is unable to provide transport assistance to support any other Post 16 student” – i.e it wishes to re-distribute the funds to other vulnerable, non SEN, post-16 students? (s 4.3)
- “the overall budget indications for 2016/17 currently forecast a transport budget overspend of £200,000” – i.e. to maintain sound financial management against a previously agreed budget? (s 4.4)
- “to achieve savings in transport during the 2017/18 and 2018/19 financial years. In order to balance the budget against the ever increasing costs of transport” – i.e. savings necessary due to budget cuts? (s 4.5)
It certainly makes sense that the Council continues to review the process by which free transport is provided to ensure that money is spent wisely, efficiently and on those who are absolutely in need of that provision. The preferred process for assessing eligibility highlighted in the consultation is the “points based system” . This has all of the hallmarks of creating more friction, anxiety, trauma for the Parents involved, and at a cost to the Council.
Anyone who has been involved in claiming Employment and Support Allowance, or Personal Independence Payments from the Department of Work and Pensions will know, to their cost, how much of a “blunt instrument” a points based system can be. They will know how easy it is for the authorities to avoid awarding points in a way which undermines the outcome and which, after appeal, results in the points being changed, and the benefit being subsequently granted….and at what cost to the individual?
A points based system is fine for the extremes, or where the disability is objectively verifiable e.g. someone is a wheelchair user, or has a clear mobility constraint. But a significant number of SEN students have autism / behavioural conditions where the problem isn’t strictly physical, or immediately evident to an un-trained 3rd Party.
Given the extent of “fight” that parents of SEN children have on a daily basis to get the support they are entitled to from the Council ( and Central Government) the implementation of a process which tries to codify conditions which are not always easily understood, described, or consistent, into a finite score is highly likely to cause more problems than it solves, and the losers in this will be the Parents, and most importantly the children, and their education.
The Local Government Ombudsman has reported (March 2017) on these very issues and the Council should ensure that it addresses all of the major findings very carefully:
We are seeing an increase in complaints about school transport issues. Most of these relate to failures in process including:
- failing to consult or inform parents of proposed changes to policy;
- lack of clear information to enable parents to make properly informed decisions;
- inadequate or poorly communicated decision making;
- for children with special educational needs (SEN), failing to consider health and safety problems associated with their educational needs and disability when considering eligibility for transport.
It goes on to say:
We recognise and understand that on occasions difficult decisions have to be made, particularly in times of reduced public spending. But councils must ensure such decisions are made fairly, legally and transparently. Failure to do so can cause confusion, financial hardship and significantly disadvantage some of the most vulnerable children, particularly those with special educational needs.
The Council will maintain that they are consulting parents, and informing them of a change in policy – that is true. A change, inherently, is not a problem, that’s understood. But the “Points based system” has not been published, in detail – it is merely a headline, and this is the most significant part of the process, and that has not been consulted on yet.
No indication has been given as to how that is likely to happen, and who will be involved.
However it does happen it must not just be about the diagnosed disability but, as the LGO states it MUST consider “health and safety problems”.
This will be being watched, very carefully, by many anxious, and vocal, Parents in the City.