A SEND transport system that is not fit for purpose

By Swindon Link - 22 September 2023


North Swindon mother Amanda Wilkins, who has three children diagnosed with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), has had a constant struggle to get the special educational support they need. A couple of weeks ago she described her battle to get her SEND (Special Educational Need & Disability) children a proper education. Today she looks into the huge problems facing families of SEND children when it comes to transport.

By Amanda Wilkins

Swindon SEND transport is in crisis.

Parents and carers all across Swindon have been been facing a total nightmare this week regarding the multitude of difficulties they are currently facing with the service. 

Sadly this is not a new phenomenon. 

I personally experienced many problems when my son was transported to his SEND School back in 2019. Lack of communication and organisation, taxis booked but not arriving or arriving late, were all commonplace difficulties but it appears that the issues are growing and spiralling out of control.

It’s almost impossible to list the numerous challenges that are being encountered. Once I started looking into SEND Transport, it was like opening a Pandora’s box of horrors and I was overwhelmed at the sheer scale of the problems.

There are difficulties with a shortage of personal assistants needed to accompany SEND children to school.

Personal travel budgets are in such an absolute shambles it warrants a whole separate piece in its own right, (watch this space!) and what is possibly the most shocking is the refusal to transport eligible children to their schools.

It really is a broken service, unfit for purpose and unfair on some of the most vulnerable members of our society. 

Encountering the problems, SEND mother Becky Poole set up an online support group for families last year after many parents were illegally refused transport for their children to Crowdys Hill School, a specialist SEND provision in Swindon. 

According to her, this year roughly 70 families were told incorrectly that as they lived within the statutory walking distance from home to school they were not eligible for transport.

Under the S5O8B Education Act of 1996, Swindon Borough Council has a duty to arrange home to school transport for eligible children, and when it comes to children with SEND the usual transport requirements such as statutory walking distances should not be considered. 

With the support of SOS SEN, a national charity that supports SEND families with their rights and entitlements in education, Becky wrote a template letter for parents to use in order to challenge the local authority.

Despite the council’s continued refusal to concede, many parents eventually won on appeal. 

Becky said: “Last year I highlighted to SBC and local councillors the difficulties parents were having in transport.

“I was assured by the council that training would take place on the matters I raised.

“This year Labour have taken over the council and it will take time for the councillors to get to grips with the scale of issues in SEND and transport.

“Much is covered with complex laws and Acts which can be difficult to get to understand quickly.

“I understand that the council may not have an awful lot of money to work with BUT to be clear, having no money can not be an excuse for not meeting Statutory duties. The law is the law and we cannot pick and choose which bits we choose to follow or not.”

We asked the borough council for a response to claims that they often refused SEND transport despite eligibility and that one lady had claimed the majority from Crowdys Hill School were refused transport. 

A council spokesperson said: “All applications have been processed in line with the published policy. Each child’s needs are assessed against the published criteria. It is not the case that the majority of pupils at Crowdys Hill School have been refused travel support.”

However, a member of staff from Crowdys Hill School said: “We have had 50-plus students in Secondary and 20-plus in Primary refused transport.

“We have also had students who were on transport, haven’t changed a criteria year group, house or need but were not given transport and have had to contact transport several times to get them back on transport.

“Some are still not back on transport yet. As a result of this we now have more than 90 parents/carers having to drop off and pick up their children. The beginning and end of day now has 70-plus cars as well as 18 minibuses fighting for a space to park in an area built to accommodate 15 buses and five cars!”

While this may not be the majority it is certainly a number that is quite shameful for Swindon Borough Council. 

The overall lack of communication and misinformation the service is infamous for is still causing difficulties.

A parent who wishes to remain anonymous as she is currently still battling for transport for her child, who we will call Kate, said: “This is the fourth year of using transport and I’ve never had so many problems as I have since my child has changed school.

“When my kid went up to Year 7 it was an inconvenience going through it but this is just so much worse. Every time you ask a question it’s like you’re an inconvenience and they avoid answering.” 

Our source put in a transport request on 26 July for a new school. It was declined the following day and despite asking via email three times how to appeal she was ignored.

It was only when she cancelled the previous school transport on 4 September that she was finally informed of the appeals process. But by this time the 20-day deadline of receiving the initial communication had elapsed and it was too late to challenge the decision. 

She said: “I’m now left with no transport and no way of getting it sorted as I wasn’t given an option to appeal it at all. They said paperwork would tell me how but they never sent it.” 

Sadly the challenges for post-16 students regarding SEND Transport are quite unimaginable.

Many students with SEND are unable to safely travel independently to mainstream and specialist colleges.

Appropriate forms of transportation such as taxis and mini buses are rarely offered and young adults are being given bus passes instead. Those that do qualify for taxis are often refused personal assistants despite requiring them to stay safe during the journey. 

As someone who is extremely familiar with our local bus system (I passed my driving test at the grand old age of 41) I can tell you now buses are a scary place for anyone, let alone a young adult with SEND.

Buses are unpredictable. Sometimes they don’t arrive on time or at all.

They can be noisy, crowded, smelly, other passengers can be scary, they can re-route without notice, refuse passage if they are full and I can also guarantee that the bus driver will not be trained in how to support SEND passengers.

This is not a suitable environment and highly triggering for a young person with SEND. 

When we asked SBC why pupils with SEND were given bus passes despite them not being suitable for some SEND students, a spokesperson said: “Eligibility for travel assistance is not a specific type/mode of transport however we assess children’s needs to the type of travel support required.

“The council is required to be aware of the public use of resources as part of individual arrangements and work with parents. Parents can also appeal against a mode of travel provided in line with our policy. This year, as is the case every year, there have been a number of parents who have appealed their child’s allocated travel support.”

It seems to me that as with all things SEND related, the plan is to do what’s cheapest and easiest and wait to see who complains, then do what should have been done in the first place. 

For some SEND pupils, however, buses are an appropriate mode of transportation as they encourage independence, but in order for it to be a viable option extensive training is required.

Many families have been allocated bus passes with the promise of council-funded Independent Travel Training but due to difficulties this will not be available until October, a month after the students are due to start. Considering this type of training could potentially take years, it’s far too little too late. 

When asked about the independent travel training the council said: “ITT is a new service and unfortunately, due to the level of requests there are some delays in being able to undertake the training, but we are working hard to resolve this.”

I’m not sure how the high level of requests could have possibly come as a surprise given the amount of SEND pupils offered bus passes rather than adequate transport provision, but as Swindon Borough Council are working hard to resolve this I’m sure it will all be hunky dory!! Please note my sarcastic tone.

Becky’s 18 year old son is now attending Horizons College. He has received independent travel training as Becky organised this privately, but she continues to struggle with the transport service and is still waiting for the bus pass her son should have already received as he started college last week. This is yet another problem, with one parent stating that they were sent a rail pass by mistake so are currently paying £20 a day while they wait for the bus pass to arrive. 

Hannah, an 18 year old student, said: “It makes me feel sad to say that the LA have let me down regarding transport for the past two years, making it very stressful and anxious for me.” 

Hannah states that although the LA had offered transport it was not appropriate due to her varied college timetable. A long battle has since followed with the council to fight for appropriate support. Hannah states that her mum, who has health issues, has had to put up a strong battle.

Hannah’s mother Maria said: “The local authority of Swindon are in shambles, incompetent and lack communication. Life is short, it is heartbreaking to read and experience the lack of humanity we parents are facing each day, in addition to supporting the needs of our children and young people.”

My own daughter, who has ASD/ADHD, is due to start secondary school in 2025. She will need a school which can cater for her needs and this will not be the same mainstream my 12-year-old currently attends.

My son did not get into our local school due to it being oversubscribed so I have no option but to drive him to school and back every day.

Now, I may be Super-SEND Mum, but my powers sadly do not allow me to be in two places at once and this will mean my daughter will need SEND Transport. I am already filled with dread at the thought of the battle ahead. 

I think our source, ‘Kate’, summarised it perfectly. She said: “We get constant reminders that as parents we are responsible to get our children to and from education and yet the local authority put them in a school or placement that you cannot safely get them to without transport. It just seems ridiculous to me. The stress it puts on parents and children is ridiculous.”

Once again SEND families are being failed when it comes to dealing with the local authority.

As usual we are left fighting for what should be a legal right. It shouldn’t be like this. We shouldn’t have to constantly argue, complain and shout. We shouldn’t have to make a nuisance of ourselves to be heard.

Our lives are challenging enough and we don’t need the extra stress and pressure. Sadly many give up as it’s just too much fighting and I feel this is often what the local authorities want. 

Things are difficult for the local authority at the moment and we understand but these problems need to be resolved.

In summary a council spokesperson said: “The council transports a thousand children to and from school using 120 vehicles each day.

“The number of children requiring SEND transport has increased by almost a quarter compared to this time last year and it is no easy task to ensure it all runs smoothly.

“We work hard to ensure that arrangements are in place as the new year starts and, when issues arise, we deal with them promptly.”

Becky urges parents to put in formal complaints to the council if they have been illegally refused SEND transport and offers support with this. She also suggests contacting ipsea, a registered charity who offer free legal advice and support regarding education and the rights of children and young people with SEND and can be contacted at www.ipsea.org.uk

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