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School transport policy changes causing ‘upheaval’ for children, ombudsman reports

Changes to councils’ school transport policies are causing ‘upheaval’ for an increasing number of pupils, Ombudsman warns.

A new report from the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) found in 2015/16 there were 261 complaints and enquiries about school transport compared with just 160 the previous year.

In one case detailed in the report, a council refused free transport to allow a girl to attend the same school as her sisters. The appeal panel was provided with information about the family’s personal and financial circumstances, but the request was still rejected.

The Ombudsman found no evidence the panel had even looked at whether there were any exceptional circumstances so they could consider exercising discretion in this case.

‘When looking at school transport awards, councils must ensure decisions are made fairly, legally and transparently,’ LGO Michael King said.

‘Failing to do this can cause confusion, financial hardship and have a significant impact on some of the most vulnerable families, particularly those who have children with special educational needs’

‘While I appreciate the financial strain councils are under, parents and carers can only have trust in their council’s decision making if they are kept properly informed throughout the process, and told clearly the reasons for any decisions made.’

Responding to the report, Cllr Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: ‘Local authorities take their responsibility to provide home-to-school transport for those in need very seriously, with councils continuously looking at innovative approaches to enable them to provide a coordinated and high quality service for children and their parents.’

Cllr Watts said that councils worked hard to ensure suitable travel arrangements were available for all children ‘who could not reasonably be expected to walk or would otherwise find it difficult to attend school because of distance, mobility, special educational needs or the routes they have to take.’

However, he warned this was becoming increasingly difficult due to ‘significant funding pressures.’