Presented by Temi Fawehinmi, the report outlined the areas of the Education Transport Policy 2016 that had been reviewed, the reasons for these and the proposed changes. The report can be found on pages 171 – 182 of the Agenda.
The Committee discussed the emotional impacts on children who had to move schools and how it affected their academic progress despite the financial advantages given within their report. The Committee highlighted their concerns of the recommendations and were not minded to support these. For recommendation 1.1, Councillor Muldowney felt children were already at a disadvantage and moving to different schools too many times would impact on their final attainment grades at GCSE with those moving. For recommendation 1.2, Councillor Muldowney was not in favour of pupils paying for transport as the Council's financial situation was considered healthy as highlighted in previous Full Council meetings. For recommendation 1.3, Councillor Muldowney sought clarification on whether a child would be expected to move back to a school within their locality should a place become available.
Michele Lucas answered that there were exceptional circumstances in some cases in the recommendations. Referring to recommendation 1.2, Michele Lucas explained that post 16s would be learning to travel which was a skill that would enable them to progress into adulthood. But where there would always be exceptions for some young people, the service would ensure that transport would be available. Regarding recommendation 1.1, Michele Lucas said that there were challenges to moving children to different schools and each case was looked at closely before any decision was made in line with local policies. Referring to recommendation 1.3, Michele Lucas said that the service was required to follow legislation and place children in a school if there was no suitable school place within the maximum walking distance but with the number of new schools due to open in Thurrock, the service was aware that children were better placed within their local community.
The Chair noted the detailed summary of the legal implications in the report on pages 175 – 177 of the Agenda and referring to the findings from the consultation, she also could not agree with the recommendations. With recommendation 1.1, she questioned whether it was an optional requirement to transfer a child to another school and if parents refused, whether there would be a charge for not doing so. Referring to recommendation 1.2, the Chair raised concerns on charging SEND post-16s SEND travel fees as the Council’s vision was to enable vocational and academic education, skills and job opportunities for all and SEND post-16s would miss out on these opportunities if they could not afford to attend due to travel costs.
Temi Fawehinmi explained that a policy was in place for families of low income and for exceptional circumstances so the Education Transport Policy 2016 was not a blanket policy. With mainstream post-16s, where travel funding was decommissioned, young people could still apply and would be given transport if there was a need and this would also apply to SEND post-16s. There were young people that had the capabilities to travel independently and the service reviewed the level of need along with a range of factors of a young person and provided support where needed and also identified what would be looked at before a charge was considered or not. The Chair did not feel this explanation was reflected clearly in recommendation 1.2 and was not minded to agree to this. Temi Fawehinmi answered that the recommendation could be amended to reflect that the charge would not be a blanket provision across all SEND post-16s. Councillor Muldowney felt that if there was to be a reduction travel provisions, the service should not be starting with their most vulnerable group of children. She also did not support recommendation 1.2.
Referring to recommendation 1.3, the Chair felt the recommendation was not clear and questioned how this differed to recommendation 1.1. She raised concerns over moving children around different schools. Temi Fawehinmi explained that there were two different aspects and the first was in terms of mileage. Where parents chose a school that was not a child’s nearest school, this would be covered by the Education Act which gave specific mileage depending on the child's age. The second aspect referred to unplaced children who were not able to secure a place in their local schools so the service would transport them further afield. The service was aware of the issues arising from this but Thurrock was in a very unique position where it had attracted a lot of investment in developments and housing which meant the numbers of children that were moving into the Borough had difficulty finding a place in a local school. Due to the numbers of children, there would be children who may be unplaced for a while and using the travel provisions to go to school. The service looked at a range of factors and aimed to find the right balance for a child that would benefit the child without moving a child to another school midterm.
Councillor Muldowney did not feel that removing paid transport services for parents in certain situations was the solution to the problems as outlined in Temi Fawehinmi’s explanation. She went on to say that an additional burden would be placed on parents who was not able to pay for the transport charges. Councillor Smith and the Chair queried whether a child would be expected to transfer to a local school if a space became available particularly if a child was settled in the school that they were currently in and if the child chose to stay in the same school would the Council continue to fund the transport fees.
Temi Fawehinmi explained that there were questions around how long the Council would be able to sustain funding the transport fees. There was also the issue of stability for a child and how likely it was for a child to continue to attend a school that was outside of their local community. It was a matter of balancing a child's needs and the abilities to sustain those transport costs for a long period of time.
There were differing opinions from Committee Members on recommendation 1.3 and the Chair and Councillor Muldowney did not agree with the recommendation.
That O&S recommend to Cabinet the proposed policy refresh to the 2016 policy. That O&S recommend that Cabinet agrees and adopts the proposed refresh of the policy with specific reference to the three areas listed below:
1.1 That families in Temporary Accommodation for more than three months be asked to transfer their children to a school with a place that is nearest to the home in which the family has been placed.
1.2 The implementation of a charging regime in respect of for transport to Post 16 facilities for pupils aged 16-25 with SEND. Pupils will be required to pay the full cost or make a contribution towards the cost of transport. This service is discretionary and the Council may charge for the delivery of such transport.
1.3 That transport be delivered, in accordance with legislation, only when there is no suitable school with a place available within the maximum walking distance from the child’s home (two miles for pupils under the age of 8 and 3 miles for pupils over the age of 8)