By Rebecca Curley, Local Democracy Reporter, 6 February
Parents of children with special needs are considering taking legal action against Surrey County Council’s changes to school transport rules.
The families are mounting the challenge against changes to the policy which includes scrapping free transport for some pre-school age children and those over the age of 16.
They say this will have an impact on their children who have special needs and disabilities and confirmed they are consulting with solicitors about a possible Judicial Review against SCC.
The newly revised policy was approved by SCC cabinet lead for all-age learning Cllr Julie Iles on Friday (31 January).
Changes will impact some mainstream and SEND children of pre-school age, some children when they turn eight, and post-16 students.
Parents have a legal responsibility to ensure children aged five to 16 can regularly attend school.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide free home to school travel assistance or transport for those who meet eligibility – criteria includes those with special needs or mobility difficulties as well as the distance between the school and home.
SCC consulted on the three areas of its discretionary provision which included travel and transport for children below the age of five; children turning eight living between two and three miles from their nearest available school; and young people over the age of 16.
Surrey said that through a public consultation it realised parents wanted children to gain more independence around travelling to school, and that free transport will still be considered and provided on a case by case basis. This will be determined by need and distance between home and nearest school.
During the 12 week consultation, the council held nine public meetings, various focus groups with SEND young people and head teachers and meetings with primary, secondary and special school councils.
According to an analysis report of the consultation, a total of 572 people filled in a survey with the majority indicating the council should continue with the three areas it is scrapping.
Parents of SEND children fear their children will be negatively impacted by the changes.
Reacting to the announcement of the revised policy, one parent said: “Surrey don’t listen. Never have never will, until someone takes legal action.”
Another said: “I am just so fed up with the charade we have to go through with these pointless consultations for Surrey then to do as they please.”
Parent-support group Family Voice Surrey, which took part in the consultation, questioned the council’s use of the “as the crow flies” method of measuring qualifying distances between homes and schools for travel. It has requested the policy is reviewed because of its “inherent inaccuracy and potential unfairness”.
In a written question submitted to Cllr Iles ahead of her decision on Friday, it said that they “don’t know of any student in Surrey who travels to school by helicopter, hot-air balloon, Quidditch broomstick” and that using Google maps instead of Ordnance Survey straight line measurements would be more accurate for working out driving and walking times.
Surrey said these were discretionary measures it was “ceasing” and not part of its statutory duty and will only impact a “small number” of children in the county.
The changes will save £1.6m from a £3.1m overspend in the transport budget, according to papers.
The SEND transport bill for SCC is around £33.3m a year.
In a statement regarding the possible Judicial Review challenge, a SCC spokesman said: “We are committed to ensuring that the children and young people who are eligible continue to receive free travel to and from school or college. The policy agreed on Friday covers the council’s legal responsibilities.
“Following extensive consultation with parents, young people, school professionals and residents, we are putting a greater emphasis on promoting independence. This is something our young people told us they want as it helps them prepare for adult life.
“For a small number of children and young people who are not entitled to free travel assistance we will no longer offer travel as a matter of course. If a child has significant additional needs, we will consider whether travel assistance is necessary as an exceptional case.”
The High Court challenge against the revised Home to School/College Travel Assistance and Transport Policy is still in its early stages and the parents would need to raise enough money to meet legal costs and mount their legal case on how the changes will have a detrimental impact on their children.
A group of parents took SCC to court in 2018 but failed in their bid to challenge cuts to the SEND budget.