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SEND school transport fiasco 'over' but parents fear future shake-ups

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Additional reporting by Ciaran Duggan, local democracy reporter

County Hall chiefs have declared a school transport crisis involving special needs children is "over".

But parents fear the fix is only short-term, and that more chaos will ensue the next time the authority shakes up its transport services for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).

Parents of children with SEND were left deeply frustrated by KCC's transport changes during the February half-term
Parents of children with SEND were left deeply frustrated by KCC's transport changes during the February half-term

Kent County Council's (KCC) scrutiny committee met on Wednesday to review the transport shake-up that impacted SEND pupils across the county over February half-term.

The debacle left parents in limbo over transport arrangements, and hundreds of pupils unable to get to school.

The meeting at County Hall on Wednesday heard about 1,200 special needs children were left without transport in Kent in February, but 98% are now placed.

KCC's cabinet member for transport, Cllr David Brazier (Con), said: "We are now operating within the bounds of business as usual," he said. "In practical terms, the crisis is over."

But Alison Dilnutt from Swalecliffe, Whitstable, whose son Caleb was among many children affected by the saga, fears long-term issues remain.

Alison Dilnutt, from Whitstable, with her son Caleb, 11. Picture: Alison Dilnutt
Alison Dilnutt, from Whitstable, with her son Caleb, 11. Picture: Alison Dilnutt

"It's resolved for the time being, but it's going to happen again," she said.

"As soon as they decide it's new contract time, the whole thing will happen again. I'd put money on it."

Alison's son Caleb, 11, attends a satellite class run by St Nicholas School at Spires Academy in Canterbury, just five miles from his home as the crow flies.

Prior to the February half-term, he spent roughly 45 minutes on transport to and from school.

But following the transport upheaval his route and provider changed, and he was left spending up to four hours on the journey each day.

Alison says that thanks to a rejig by Caleb's transport provider, his journey time has now improved slightly.

"But I'm just sitting here waiting for it to become chaos again, like every other parent," she said.

Meanwhile, another "isolated administrative error" by KCC earlier this week is said to have left at least nine special needs children without their usual taxi service on the first day of the summer term, resulting in some children missing lessons.

An internal inquiry to understand what went wrong during the February shake-up continues.

Wednesday's KCC panel was told a daily situation report has been created to provide live data on the number of special needs children using KCC school transport, and the number of outstanding complaints, which are down to a "tiny figure".

But opposition county councillors echoed Ms Dilnutt's concerns.

Cllr Dr Lauren Sullivan (Lab), who is KCC's main opposition leader, lobbied for a clear plan of action to avoid more "craziness" during the summer holidays.

She said: "What would be useful for parents is having confidence we are ready for September.

"It is about having that plan, what lessons have been learnt and how you will be implementing the changes so September is a success, so there is not an August bank holiday craziness."

'There are no current plans to repeat a similar retendering exercise...'

KCC's cabinet member for education, Cllr Shellina Prendergast (Con), said 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 companies to deliver services for SEND children.

Kent County Council assures it has no plans to carry out a reshuffle of the same scale in the near future.

A spokesman 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 grows, the transport industry continues to face a range of challenges resulting in a finite capacity of vehicles and passenger assistants.

“Transport demand must be balanced with provider availability meaning, while we cannot guarantee that it will not be necessary to make some smaller changes in future, there are no current plans to repeat a similar retendering exercise to those carried out earlier this year, which was the largest KCC has ever implemented to free up capacity.

“We have committed to an internal review to learn from what happened, so we can begin to rebuild parent confidence in our service going forward.”

The full scope of KCC’s internal review into the SEND transport fiasco can be read here.

A further update is expected to be given to KCC scrutiny members in June.

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