Published: 12:01, 11 February 2019
| Updated: 12:35, 11 February 2019
Parents could face paying several hundreds of pounds to cover some of the costs of transport for young adults with special needs to get to schools or specialist centres.
Kent County Council is considering bringing in charges to curb the increasing costs of taking children to and from special schools.
The charges could be based on the Kent 16+ Travel Card which costs £400. Currently, the county council offers support for young adults with special needs or disabilities, with families eligible for funding depending on how far the journey is.
But there has been growing pressure on SEN budgets and Kent is one of the highest spenders on home-to-school transport costs.
According to a survey, the authority spends more than any other on transport costs, with many children taken to and from home in private taxis.
Last year, it spent £22.7m out of its total £24.9m on private hire vehicles.
Campaign groups say they are dismayed by the plans and that any charges would be unfair on families as those with special needs often have to travel longer distances.
"How can it be fair that the law says a disabled young person is expected to be in school or training until 18 but does not have the transport to get there once they turn 16?” Una Summerson
Una Summerson, policy director of the campaign group Contact said: "We are disappointed that more and more councils are choosing to cut free school transport for some disabled children and young people, which means they are now unfairly disadvantaged. How can it be fair that the law says a disabled young person is expected to be in school or training until 18 but does not have the transport to get there once they turn 16?”
She said councils were exploiting a loophole in the law: “The loophole means that funding transport for disabled teenagers is up to the individual council's discretion, rather than it being a legal obligation as it is for younger children.”
Cllr Roger Gough, KCC Cabinet member for children's services, stressed no decisions had been taken and there would be full consultation on any proposals.
He said: “KCC has been considering whether it might make a charge for post-16 transport for learners who have special Educational Needs. Many other local authorities already charge and in some cases considerably more than we would be considering.
"However it is something that needs full and proper consultation. One of the issues is who it would apply to and it would probably apply to new applicants. That and other key issues would need to be sorted.”
If the council did go ahead it would be unlikely that charges will be brought in before 2020-21, he added.
"Many other local authorities already charge and in some cases considerably more than we would be considering." Cllr Roger Gough
Una Summerson said "It was disappointing that Kent could be following in the footsteps of other authorities. While we recognise that local authorities are under extreme budget pressures, we don't believe the solution is to pass this pressure onto vulnerable families already facing significant extra costs and challenges associated with caring for a disabled young person.
"The impact of losing school transport is huge - with parents having to give up work or disabled teenagers unable to complete their education.
"That's why we are calling on the government to close the loophole in school transport policy for disabled 16 and 17-year-olds to stop councils doing this."
According to the most recent figures, there are 8,457 children with special needs statements in the county. Of these, 1,445 are in maintained schools and 3,491 in special schools.