Mum faces 80 mile a day drive after autistic son's school ride cancelled
- Credit: PA
Parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities across Norfolk claim to have been “left in limbo” over school transport.
With just days before the start of the new school year, travel arrangements for dozens of pupils have still not been confirmed and at least one child’s provisions have been cancelled.
Donna Youngs, of Newton St. Faith, north of Norwich, is currently appealing a decision by Norfolk County Council (NCC) to cancel her son’s taxi – a move which could take up to a month.
If the situation is not rectified then Ms Youngs will be forced to drive more than 80 miles a day, five days a week, to Sidestrand Hall School, near Cromer.
The 55-year-old is a single mum to Alfie, nine, who first attended the school when he was seven years old following a diagnosis of ASD. He underwent a risk assessment prior to his travel arrangements being organised, due to on-going extra needs. He also has an Education and Health Care Plan in place.
“He had been travelling to school in a taxi with two other boys and an assistant,” Ms Youngs explained.
“Due to Covid, this arrangement had been on and off, as has been common with a lot of SEND children during the pandemic.
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“Alfie is a lovely, chatty boy but sometimes he can be hard work by being disruptive and hitting out. The taxi driver has had to pull over on past occasions. Over the past two years though he has developed a good relationship with the driver and he became really attached to him.”
In May, Norfolk County Council stopped the contract with the taxi firm citing the need for more SEND children to be given places for school travel.
And while Alfie was offered a minibus placement, his mum explained that this was not a viable or safe option for him.
She said: “When children have autism, like Alfie’s, they need lots of reassuring. Alfie relies on visual timetables. We have not even been offered and meet and greet with potential drivers, something which is usually put into place.
“He has been asking if I will be taking him to school, but his anxiety over all of this has increased a lot.”
Ms Youngs, who had been hoping to increase her weekly working hours as a freelance graphic designer, said that it would be impossible to do so while doing the school run, costing her hundreds of pounds in fuel each month.
This story is not a unique one though, as many other parents claim to have been affected by radio silence and inflexibility from NCC.
Some have complained of travel arrangements being changed at the last minute without adequate warning, while others still are in the dark about arrangements for the start of the school term this Monday.
Another mother, from north Norfolk, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “Not only have we been left in limbo in regards to our child’s transport, but the system as a whole is flawed.
“The taxi companies which are employed often have no or minimal training to transport children with extra needs. This is a huge risk for both the driver and passengers.
“The world needs to stop treating our SEND children like they don’t have extra needs. We need to move towards a society that is able to shape and mould itself around these individuals’ needs instead of trying to get everyone to fit in a box.
“It is not a one shape fits all in this case.
“It’s hard enough getting our child settled once they return to school after the summer holidays, so having their transport arrangements changed at short notice just adds to their worries and causes stress. Our SEND children need more support and the education system needs more training.”
NCC has insisted that it aims to organise school transport as quickly as possible while making sure every child is supported appropriately.
Through its £120 million SEND transformation programme, 500 new school places are being created at locations across the county with the aim of reducing long travel distances for children.
John Fisher, NCC councillor and cabinet member for children’s services, said: “We understand that any uncertainty is difficult for families but as children move and are allocated new places over the summer we match transport as quickly as we can to ensure that every child receives the support they need.
“We are working around the clock to ensure that there is transport provision available for all children with special educational needs, as we begin the new term.
“Although we cannot comment on individual cases, we work closely with parents to try to find the best solutions to meet their child’s individual needs and recognise how important it is to find a solution for every family.”
While local authorities are able to set their own school transport policies, these policies must comply with the law. Local authorities are only obliged to provide transport to the nearest suitable school.
The government has issued non-statutory guidance home to school travel for pupils requiring special arrangements, which details best practice in providing transport for children with SEN.
Key principles include assessing the individual’s needs via a risk assessment, full details of travel arrangements should be provided to parents and carers, and if an escort is used then they should be introduced to the child beforehand where the pupil has severe learning difficulties.
Suitable transport must also enable an eligible child to reach school without stress, strain or such difficulty that it would be prevented them from benefitting from the education provided. Children must be allowed to travel in reasonable safety and in reasonable comfort.
Ms Youngs added: “At the moment I have no choice but to drive Alfie to school myself. I won’t allow him to travel with strangers. It’s all just a nightmare.
“I feel as if there has been no consideration for children with extra needs at all.”
Have you had problems with school transport provision this academic year? Please contact reporter Donna-Louise Bishop at email@example.com, especially if you are a parent of a SEND child.