In the third of her series of articles on the chaos of the SEND (Special Educational Needs and Disabilities) system in Swindon, Amanda Wilkins, who has three SEN children herself, looks into the problems of the council’s Personal Travel Budget scheme.
By Amanda Wilkins
“The council promised change but nothing has changed. I’m broken over the whole thing.”
For Becky Poole getting her SEND child a proper education is a constant battle and the latest problem she is facing is the council’s Personal Travel Budget scheme.
Earlier this month I wrote a story about the never-ending problems surrounding SEND Transport and I alluded to the utter farce that is the SEND personal travel budget.
I had intended to cover this issue in the original piece but when I started looking into it I realised that it was a whole sorry story in its own right and one that could not justifiably be covered in a few lines. Today I’m going to delve into this in a little more depth to really understand what’s been going on.
If a young person with SEND has an EHCP (Early Help Care Plan) they may be eligible for transport support, and this can come in the form of a personal travel budget, PTB for short.
PTBs are a monthly sum of money that enable parents to make their own arrangements to get their SEND child to their education setting. There are lots of acronyms in this piece.
This works well for families who prefer to make their own travel arrangements, for example driving the child to school themselves. According to SBC’s website the money can be used as creatively and flexibly as parents like, and it gives examples such as employing a childminder to look after siblings, covering fuel costs or funding breakfast/after school clubs.
Payments are made on the last working day of the month, a month in advance. This all sounds very straightforward and clear doesn’t it? Unfortunately, as with all things transport related, it really isn’t.
Researching this story I have been told by many families that when working out how much the PTB should be the council often miscalculates the mileage and relies on parents to pick up on this.
Payments are often delayed and this year many found themselves without a personal travel budget entirely after being incorrectly told they didn’t need to reapply if their circumstances hadn’t changed. There are also huge communication issues, with reports that phone lines are not answered and emails are ignored, leaving families frustrated and unable to seek help and assistance.
Becky, who has been actively fighting the transport shambles and set up an online support and advice group, first highlighted a series of significant difficulties to the delivery and systems leader for the SEND service back in August 2022.
In her letter to the council Becky highlighted a serious problem with the calculations of the PTB. Rather than calculate the distance between home and school using the shortest driving distance as per guidelines, the shortest walking distance was used instead, causing many families to be significantly out of pocket.
The council replied to Becky and stated in an email dated 13 September 2022 that an error had been made.
The email from the delivery and systems leader for the SEND service said: “I apologise that this has happened, and your email highlighted a training issue for the newer members of our team in terms of the information they give out and the process they follow. We have made clear the information the team have in calculating PTBs and reviewed our guidance to them to ensure this is consistent.”
Despite all the reassurances Becky was dismayed to discover the exact same thing happened with PTBs this year. They were again calculated incorrectly.
Becky said: “They said it was a one off but it happened two years running. The council promised change but nothing has changed. I’m broken over the whole thing.”
In response to our questions regarding PTBs and the miscalculations, a borough council spokesperson said: “Changes in rates provided have not been in relation to mileage changes but as a result of having to bring payments in line with HMRC rates, a reduction from 55p per mile to 44p per mile.”
However, if you look on the Swindon Borough Council website you will notice that they have made a statement regarding the miscalculation.
The statement said: “The travel team understand there has been confusion around Personal Travel Budget mileage calculation for the new academic year.
“Unfortunately there has been an administrative error around calculating the PIBs, whereby the team have calculated this on shortest walking distance when in fact it should be shortest driving distance.
“It is the eligibility for transport that is calculated on the shortest walking distance. This will be amended and extra payments will be made in the coming days. I can only apologise for this error and can assure you that we are working to fix the error as quickly as possible.”
It seems woefully incompetent to make the same mistake two years in a row, especially when it was highlighted to the transport leader and change was promised.
Yes, there was a change in terms of the mileage allowance but this was a separate issue to the mileage calculation.
Thankfully, as a collective SEND support group the members were able to work together and challenge the council, resulting in parents eventually being adequately reimbursed.
A number of parents were also denied PTBs over confusion regarding re-applying. A source who wishes to remain anonymous said that they were told they wouldn’t need to apply for a PTB again, only to be then denied one because they had missed the deadline to apply. When they attempted to challenge this there were no responses to phonecalls or emails.
She said: “My application for PTB was received on 28 August. All I've had is that it's received and could I confirm daughters school again and again.
“Our circumstances haven’t changed since last year when we had no problems receiving it. I was late submitting because I was told by someone on one of the rare occasions that I did get through to the transport team on the telephone that I didn't need to apply again this year, only when my daughter went up to year 7.”
A spokesperson for Swindon Borough Council said: “The travel team are clear that all travel requests require an annual application, we do this as individual circumstances can change.”
Our source tells us, however, that the information was not clear before and that the website has now been updated to warn parents that they need to reapply.
Another huge issue that Becky first raised back in September 2022 was the total and utter lack of communication. Emails were unanswered and phone calls ignored.
In response to Becky’s complaint in 2022 the council said: “What has come to light is that parents were calling the mobile phone numbers of colleagues who have now left the organisation, and these numbers were still being advertised.
“As a result we have taken a number of actions: We have implemented a rota system to ensure there is constant phone coverage throughout the day.
“We have made sure to advertise the numbers to get the team on. We have co-produced with Swindon SEND families voice a communication to outline how we are working to address the difficulties that have been reported this year.”
A year on, however, and little has changed, with parents still reporting ignored emails and calls.
A council spokesperson said: “The travel team have responded to all emails in a timely manner. We are aware that some parents are struggling to open encrypted emails which are required for data security and some emails have been found within junk systems. We are working with parents individually to resolve these issues.”
The large number of parents unable to contact the transport team via phonecalls and emails over the past few months would sadly have to disagree with this statement.
As I write, however, there is a tiny glimmer of hope for some that positive change is afoot. I was able to get through to the travel team north first time earlier today and one of our sources has finally received a reply to her email regarding her PTB application.
It’s still not enough, though, and a few parents including Becky are still waiting for bus passes. She is now seeking legal support. It’s a shame that parents are once again left to navigate this broken system. Change is constantly promised but doesn’t seem to materialise, leaving families out of pocket, stressed and in some cases without transport for their children.
As one parent said: “You’d think you were after a golden ticket or something, not just the opportunity for your child to attend school!”
After writing and publishing the original transport piece, Becky was really pleased and encouraged that someone was finally taking notice and thought that this may be the push the council needed to illicit change.
Sadly, a few weeks on and there is still no change for Becky and many others. I’ve looked in depth into the difficulties surrounding transport as I really wanted to get a good understanding of where the problems are and what needs to be done.
I dived right back to when the support group was initially set up and I can see why Becky is at her wits’ end.
So many promises of help and change by so many different people including local councillors and nothing has materialised.
If a strong, determined woman with a knowledge of the law and a tenacious spirit can’t elicit change, what hope do any of us have?
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