SEND school bus fiasco ‘over’ but parents fear future upheaval
Additional reporting by Ciaran Duggan, local democracy reporter
County Hall chiefs have said a school bus crisis involving children with special needs is “over”.
But parents fear the solution will be short-term and more chaos will ensue the next time the authority shakes up its transport services for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The Kent County Council (KCC) Oversight Committee met on Wednesday to consider the transport disruption which affected SEND pupils across the county during February mid-term.
The debacle has left parents in limbo over transportation arrangements and hundreds of students unable to get to school.
Wednesday’s meeting at County Hall heard that around 1,200 children with special needs were left without transport in Kent in February, but 98 per cent are now in care.
KCC Transport Cabinet Member Cllr David Brazier (Con) said: ‘We are now operating within the scope of the status quo,’ he said. “Concretely, the crisis is over.”
But Alison Dilnutt of Swalecliffe, Whitstable, whose son Caleb was among many children affected by the saga, fears long-term problems may remain.
“It’s resolved for now, but it will happen again,” she said.
“As soon as they decide it’s the new contract period, it will all happen again. I would put money on it.”
Alison’s son Caleb, 11, attends a satellite class run by St Nicholas School at Spiers Academy in Canterbury, just five miles from his home as the crow flies.
Before February midterm, he spent about 45 minutes in transportation to and from school.
But following the transport disruption, his route and supplier changed, and he had to spend up to four hours on the journey each day.
Alison says that thanks to a redesign of Caleb’s transportation provider, her commute time has now improved slightly.
“But I’m just sitting here waiting for it to go back to chaos, like all the other parents,” she said.
Meanwhile, another ‘isolated administrative error’ made by KCC earlier this week is said to have left at least nine children with special needs without their usual taxi service on the first day of summer term, causing classes to be missed. to some children.
An internal investigation to understand what went wrong in the February reshuffle continues.
Wednesday’s KCC panel was told that a daily status report has been created to provide live data on the number of children with special needs using KCC school transport, and the number of outstanding complaints, which are reduced to a “tiny number”.
But opposition county councilors echoed Ms Dilnutt’s concerns.
Cllr Dr Lauren Sullivan (Lab), who is KCC’s main opposition leader, has been pushing for a clear plan of action to avoid more “madness” over the summer holidays.
She said: “What would be helpful for parents is to have confidence that we are ready for September.
“It’s about having that plan, what lessons have been learned and how you’re going to implement the changes to make September a success, so there’s no holiday madness in August.”
“There are currently no plans to repeat a similar re-tendering exercise…”
KCC Cabinet Member for Education, Cllr Shellina Prendergast (Con), said that while the council is “back to business as usual”, ongoing challenges remain.
They include a shortage of bus drivers while the rising cost of fuel is making it “almost impossible” for some businesses to provide services to SEND children.
Kent County Council says it has no plans to carry out an overhaul of the same magnitude in the near future.
A spokesperson said: “KCC has a statutory responsibility to provide home-to-school transport for children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities.
“While eligibility for this service increases, the transport industry continues to face a series of challenges resulting in a limited capacity of vehicles and passenger assistants.
“Transport demand must be balanced with supplier availability, which means that while we cannot guarantee that smaller changes will not be required in the future, it is currently not no plans to repeat a re-tendering exercise similar to those carried out earlier this year, which was KCC’s largest ever to free up capacity.
“We are committed to carrying out an internal review to learn from what happened, so that we can begin to restore parents’ confidence in our service in the future.”
The full scope of KCC’s internal review of the SEND transport fiasco can be read here.
A further update is expected to be given to KCC review members in June.