What's going on with SEND transport in Leicester?

In January this year, many families of SEND students over 16 received a nasty shock when they opened their post. They discovered that come September, they would no longer receive any support from the council to travel to their place of education.

Parents, carers and students protesting outside City Hall alongside Liberal Democrat councillor Zuffar Haq.
Parents, carers and students protesting outside City Hall alongside Liberal Democrat councillor Zuffar Haq. Photograph: Levi Kirton / Great Central Gazette

The now postponed decision to cut all council-organised transport for 16+ SEND students followed a consultation all the way back in 2021. However, parents and carers claim they were not contacted about the consultation, or contacted in the two-year adjustment period when they were meant to prepare for these changes. For many, the letter they received in January was the first notification that their young person was now expected to make their own way to their place of education.

Since the 2015 special education and disability reforms, there has been a 116 per cent increase in expenditure on post-16 SEND home to school transport, according to a report by Isos Partnership for the County Councils Network. On top of that, the Local Government Association warned that one in five of England’s local authorities may be unable to balance their budgets this year. When combined with councils not having a statutory obligation to provide free or subsidised travel to over 16 SEND students, it becomes easy to see how these transport cuts have become an issue affecting families nationwide, including over 750 families in Leicester.

Previously proposed policy criticised over ‘ridiculousness’ 

Parents, carers, and students were joined by Liberal Democrats and trade unionists at a recent protest. Photograph: Levi Kirton / Great Central Gazette

The postponed policy that sparked this disruption stated that council-organised transport, like school buses or taxis, would no longer be provided for over 16s. The only support that would be awarded, and only in exceptional circumstances, was a Personal Transport Budget (PTB).

Nicole Wright, an advocate for Sunshine Support, an organisation that advocates for parents, carers, and professionals who support young people with SEND, voiced her concerns over the policy: “It doesn't really tell us anything, it's so vague around it.”

She also pointed out the potential shortcomings of only offering a PTB: “Are they paying that for four journeys a day? So, for example, are they paying it to school and back? Because otherwise, how is the parent meant to get home while the child's at school or college?”

Wright continued: “What happens when you have a parent that physically can't drive? A disabled parent or a parent that can't do it themselves? It ends up being indirect discrimination because you're not putting everyone on a fair footing. If it's based on the child's needs, then it shouldn't be subject to that child having a parent that's able to drive them.”

Nicole has SEND children of her own and told us it was the reason behind why she became a lawyer: “I did my law degree sitting in a special needs school car park because that's where my child was, and I did it because I got so frustrated at being told stuff that wasn't factually correct.”

Some parents considered moving as a result 

Protestors set up educational boards at City Hall. Photograph: Levi Kirton / Great Central Gazette

Ruth Northey, whose daughter has complex needs that make it unsafe for her to get public transport, was forced to consider moving counties when faced with the cuts. Uprooting her family and potentially being forced to move her daughter to a new school was the only solution she could find.

She added: “I don't want to move. We've got a network of friends, and we have a home here. I don't want to have to move to another city, and it lets Leicester City Council off the hook, doesn't it?”

Ruth also explained the only reason many SEND young people rely so heavily on these transport provisions is because of the council’s failure to provide local provisions.

“I wish there was a provision locally or a way locally to provide what she needs,” she said, “but instead of trying to solve the problem at the root, they're trying to cut off the money in a way that is going to severely damage young people's lives. These kids have been through so much already.”

Parents fight back  

Parents and carers want to see the cuts halted. Photograph: Levi Kirton / Great Central Gazette

Parents and carers of those affected, including Ruth, started a group called STILL (Save Transport In Leicester and Leicestershire) to fight the cuts. “We're working on different ways to put pressure on the Council, from demonstrations to petitions, to try to fight against this. We're doing everything we can for our kids,” said Ruth. 

STILL were supported by Unison, the trade union. Unison claimed the content of the consultation was “deficient”, claiming none of the questions asked “even touched on the core issue of whether or not the changes would prevent or impede post-16 SEND students from accessing education.” Unison said those alleged flaws “seriously undermined the conclusions drawn from the consultation, and cast doubt upon exactly what the impact of the changes would be.” 

At the time, a council spokesperson responded it would not be re-running the consultation. They said the authority had carried out a three-month consultation, which included writing to all parents and carers with a child over 14 who had an education health care plan (EHCP). The proposals were shared with headteachers, the local parent carer forum, and the Big Mouth forum, which is made up exclusively of young people with special educational needs. Therefore, it would not be re-running the consultation.

STILL, Unison and many other parents and carers were not deterred and continued to campaign tirelessly, and it finally paid off.

Funding no longer stops in July

Poster calling for "No to school travel cuts for SEND children".
Poster calling for “No to school travel cuts for SEND children.” Graphic: campaigners

On 23 May, Leicester City Council announced it would re-run the consultation and confirmed that the funding would not stop in July as originally planned. 

Deputy city mayor, Cllr Sarah Russell said: “The council’s financial situation has not changed. We have a shortfall of more than £60 million in this year’s budget, so we do need to continue to review all services we are not legally required to provide.

“However, following meetings with parents that I and fellow councillors have been having over recent weeks, and having taken new legal advice on the process, I have asked officers to carry out a fresh round of consultation on these proposals.”

Laurence Jones, the council’s strategic director of social care and education said: “The consultation is still being drafted but is planned to run from early June to the start of the school holidays in July, and I urge all parents, carers and young people to take this opportunity to have their say.”

The consultation will ask for comments on a revised policy and how it will impact parents and children. There are no proposals to change the funding arrangements for children under 16.

The decision to re-run the consultation can be credited to the commitment and resilience of the parents and carers who fought this policy. They repeatedly protested outside city hall, organised petitions, and gained the support of organisations like Unison.

“The people that are suffering at the end of the day are the kids. And it's got the long-term impact then of how will these young people integrate into society, take jobs, be independent, contributing people in society if they've been let down in these crucial years,” said Ruth.

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