In a time of growing demand and diminishing resources, it is time to widen the lens in order to better understand and manage demand.
There has been lots of media coverage of charity Contact’s recently published report “Inquiry into school transport for disabled children”. The report makes for some distressing reading, and is brought to life by some quite stark quotes from parents about their experiences. The BBC has followed up with its own investigation and Justine Greening, the Secretary of State for Education, has now promised a review of the statutory guidance for local authorities to ensure it is clear.
Contact’s report presents some eye-opening facts:
- 51% of local school transport policies include unlawful statements;
- 23% of parents say that their disabled child struggles to learn because of a stressful journey to school;
- 17% of parents say that their child is late for school once or twice a week due to travel arrangements; and
- 20% of children are late for school at least once a month.
In summary, the report says the current transport offer for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) is not fit for purpose. iMPOWER’s experience supports this view.
As the statistics demonstrate, there is more than one issue at play here: there’s a mix of poor interpretation of the law; the current provision does not always meet parent and child needs (and changing policy will not necessarily fix this); and councils are still providing old fashioned solutions, often centred around buses and taxis, which is ultimately impacting on children’s outcomes.
There are many recommendations in the report I agree with, though we are in danger of creating unnecessary and long-term demand in the transport system by providing solutions which do not meet the specific individual needs of children. There is also a risk that we fall back onto conventional, Council-provided, Local-Authority-knows-best answers and default positions, at a time when staff are occupied with other SEND reforms.
SEND transport is often on the “too hard to fix” pile, particularly for counties, so her are four ideas about how this problem can start to be tackled.
Firstly, own the problem. Decisions surrounding SEND transport often sit across different teams and directorates, with no single team responsible for improving the offer, and sometimes with one team enduring most of the difficult changes to the financial benefit of another. There must be senior championing of any project looking at making changes, recognising that teams need to work together to achieve the benefits. This is easy to say but is often hard to do.
Secondly, understand the law and create clear, accessible, concise guidance – even training – for parents, teachers, and Council staff (and any others who are known to influence parent decision-making). Various urban myths have developed over time meaning that, all too often, staff have interpreted law and policy differently, hampering innovative thinking and the possibility of embedding change. Everyone needs to be on the same page about the art of the possible.
Thirdly, change the language. Recognising the local authority’s statutory responsibilities, stress the ambition to promote independence for children and young people, and the need to provide travel assistance (not necessarily transport). Increase the focus on medium to long-term outcomes, including those within Education Health and Care Plans. Importantly, have a range of solutions in place to support your ambition of promoting independence, whether its independent travel training, personal transport budgets, or other ideas such as walking buses.
And finally, move away from talking about policy and towards talking about behaviour. There’s a lot that can be done to support and influence parents in their decision-making without touching existing policy. By applying behavioural science methods, you can help make sure parents ask the right questions, are not unduly influenced by others, take control of decision-making and, ultimately, appreciate that thinking differently can lead to better outcomes for their child.
SEND Transport has always been a sensitive and complex subject and we are pleased that, once again, it’s appearing on the national radar. This time, we hope it can be tackled properly, to the benefit of parents, children, and the local authorities themselves. We have proved that this “win-win” of improved outcomes within a reduced financial envelope is possible.