Walk to school policy ‘in disarray’ as council promises inquiry into what went wrong
Attempts by Birmingham city council to save £2.5 million a year by encouraging children to walk to school rather than use a free bus service are in disarray.
Parents of youngsters with learning difficulties and disabilities are routinely winning appeals against the withdrawal of free transport, while Brigid Jones, the cabinet member for schools, has claimed officials are overstepping agreed guidelines when implementing the policy.
Cllr Jones (Lab Selly Oak), the latest in a long line of politicians to be handed the seemingly impossible task of cutting back on a huge bill for home to school transport, told a full council meeting she was “thoroughly disappointed with the way things proceeded during the summer”.
About 4,000 children in Birmingham qualify for free school transport but the council wants to save money and reduce the figure substantially by organising ‘walking buses’ where an adult accompanies children on a walk to school.
There are also moves to withdraw specialised bus transport from children with learning difficulties, including many with autism, leaving them to use public transport to get to school.
Cllr Jones was forced on to the back foot when quizzed on the future of free school transport by Conservative education spokesman Cllr Matt Bennett.
She appeared to blame council officers, claiming that decisions taken about free travel were “utterly inconsistent” with agreed policy, and suggested guidelines were being implemented that she had not signed off.
Cllr Jones insisted she had not approved a walking bus ration of one adult to six children, adding: “This is not what was presented to me.”
She explained the council was contacting families affected by the withdrawal of fee transport “to make sure they understand the decision and their rights to appeal.” Cllr Jones added:
Several have had their decisions overturned without going to appeal. This has been a hugely frustrating process for me.
We will be having a thorough post-mortem to discover what went wrong.
Cllr Jones said there would now have to be “a reconsideration of savings and timescales over the next year”.
A section on home to school transport in the council’s budget book sets out the new policy:
We propose to work with families and young people to develop travel solutions that enable the child or young person to access education in the same way that members of their peer group who do not have special educational needs or disability would access their education.
This includes travelling independently for young people and family-based travel solutions for younger children. We want to actively encourage children and young people’s independence which can result in them developing a skill for life and will help develop their confidence and social skills as well as increase their future options for continuing education, training and employment.
If fully implemented, the policy will save £2.8 million a year by 2019-20.
In July this year all councillors were sent a briefing paper on home to school transport. The paper stated that independent financial modelling had shown “the transformation of the service will only be possible by full adherence to the policy changes”.
Cllr Bennett (Con Edgbaston) said the council had spent £27,000 on financial modelling which turned out to be “absolute nonsense”. He added:
The parents of children with severe autism are literally being given a month or so’s notice of the withdrawal of special transport. The children are given no time to build up to the change, no time for training, there is absolutely no way they can get on public buses.
As for a ratio of one adult to six children with learning difficulties for walking buses, that is just insane.
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