Local authorities have a duty to make travel arrangements for all eligible children. Cases referred to our Legal Entitlements and Problem-Solving Project (LEaP) have revealed common problems experienced by families in accessing school transport.
Carys Hughes, LEaP Project Co-ordinator, reviews the progress the project has made to effect policy change, highlights the main issues and what we’ve learned about addressing common problems.
What have we done?
From the outset of the LEaP project we started getting lots of queries about school transport problems. We noticed that there were common problems with council policy and practice, e.g. refusing to recognise disabled children as a group of children who are eligible if they can’t reasonably be expected to walk to school.
In 2016 we asked students at the University of Leeds School of Law to research school transport policies, as part of the LEaP programme. The research reviewed 71 local authority websites and found that almost 40% failed to clearly explain the legal rights of children with SEN or disabilities
Based on that research we published a report on Local Authority Home to School On-line Transport Policies: Accessibility and Accuracy. The report recommended that the Department of Education should issue new guidance and be more prescriptive in terms of policy.
The report was launched at a conference in July 2017 and led to discussions with officials from the Department for Education about the need for revised guidance. The Department for Education sent us an early draft which we replied to in 2017. A full revised version was received in August 2018 and we responded with our comments. The draft guidance then went out to public consultation in July 2019 and we responded in September 2019. Then the process stalled. The revised guidance was due out in Spring 2020 but the process was suspended during the pandemic and remains on hold indefinitely
In the meantime, we’ve continued to deal with cases and have developed resources that can assist families.:
- Our School Transport Guides for England and Wales explain the legal obligations on local authorities to provide free school transport for disabled children.
- Our Mythbusters bust four myths around accessing school transport in Wales and England.
We’ve also built our expertise through casework and broader research.
What have we learned?
Council policies can be problematic
- Even if policies are legally incorrect, they can seem set in stone – an appeal panel may be very reluctant to depart from the policy
- Even if the policy is changed, the council may make minor changes rather than undertake a wholesale review
- Practice doesn’t change and the same letters keep being sent to other parents
- Staff do not appreciate the full extent of a council’s legal duties and are reluctant to review a written policy
- Reluctance to implement any systemic change, e.g. instead of acknowledging a statutory duty to provide transport, a council may offer a mileage allowance or use discretionary transport as a way of resolving an individual case
- In the worst cases, a council’s failure to understand its legal duties may lead to a very mechanistic approach, which tries to shift the responsibility of transport arrangements to parents
Inadequate appeals/complaints process
An appeals Panel doesn’t always offer a robust review, as they can be very reluctant to depart from the council’s policy.
- The process takes a long time
- There can be a lack of consistency in decision-making
- They can choose to limit their investigation to key areas, rather than investigating more systemic issues.
This is something we haven’t explored in depth. We advise families to get independent legal advice if they want to take this type of legal action against a council.
What has worked?
- Giving parents information about their entitlement
- Encouraging parents to seek support from networks – parents, school support workers, advocates.
- Being persistent – although this can be challenging for parents who have so many other demands on their time
What would improve the system?
- Clear, comprehensive guidance and a model policy
- A council culture which is more receptive and responsive
- A robust appeal process
- More consistency in Ombudsman decisions
Questions we’re still asking
- Overall, how do you make the different parts of the system more agile and consistent?
- How do you make sure that revised guidance gets published?
- How do you embed a policy in practice?
- How do you get councils to be more accountable? How do you put robust appeals processes in place?
These are questions that we’re still trying to answer. We’re hoping ongoing discussions at conferences such as this will give us more ideas about how to effect lasting change.
This article is a summary of the speech made at our Legal Entitlements and Problem Solving (LEaP) Project Conference for Disabled People, their Families and Carers held in October 2022. You can view more from the conference here.
Our innovative Legal Entitlements and Problem-Solving (LEaP) Project and the Legal Rights Service that runs alongside it have come out of our collaboration with the University of Leeds School of Law. The Project provides legal help and support to families who are having problems accessing health, social care or other services.