Bristol taxi drivers could end up working without pay for Bristol City Council, as the local authority looks to make ‘efficiencies’ with its Home to School Travel (HTST) costs.
The budget for transport has dramatically increased due to a lack of specialist provision in the city. Papers ahead of People Scrutiny Commission this week also identified the ‘impact’ of the Covid-19 pandemic which had resulted in less availability of drivers. They also stated that the ‘recent cost of living crisis has increased fuel prices significantly’.
Presenting a report to councillors at City Hall, potential savings were identified by the council’s Director of Children and Education Transformation – Vanessa Wilson.
In an attempt to make children more ‘independent’ a travel training programme was being developed. Little further information was given in respect of the travel training, other than ‘early work’ had been done with parents ahead of a new policy going out to consultation.
The council was also looking at developing a ‘small fleet’ of vehicles to start ‘disrupting’ the taxi transport market.
Out of area placements were causing the most upset, which has been caused due to the historic lack of specialist places in Bristol.
Children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (Send) who have an Education Health Care Plan (EHCP) must have a school that meets their needs.
The shortage has led to more pupils having to travel to placements that can meet them but are outside of the city in other local authorities.
As a way of illustrating pressures on out of area placements, the council chose the case study of one child who had been excluded from a specialist school and now had to travel to the next nearest school that could meet need. As Bristol did not have a school to meet need, the child had to travel 2 hours each way by taxi. Bristol City Council says it did not contest the named school with it being agreed ‘pre-tribunal’.
The latest data available from the Department for Education, shows that in the academic year 2021/22, there were a total of 14 permanent exclusions. There were 7 in primary schools, 5 in secondary schools and just 2 in specialist.
Wilson said: “Due to a lack of provision in our area, we’re placing more children in schools out of the area. There’s parental choice as well. That’s meant that we’ve seen, just in this last year, a doubling in costs of our transport. So we’ve literally already had in the first few months to add a further 28 additional routes. At the moment all of our transport is taxis.
“We’re looking at an independent travel training programme. It won’t work for every child, but we need to help them become independent as much as we can so that they can travel and go and get jobs, and they’re not just restricted to a particular area or reliant always on someone else. We’re also looking at creating a small fleet ourselves to start disrupting the market and have something that’s better for our children.”
But Wilson also raised the issue of taxis arriving to collect children who would not make the journey to school.
She said: “Taxis will not say to us by the way, I didn’t have to do this journey today.
“These are specific examples where they’ve turned up and they’ve had the parents say to them “actually Johnny’s not going today” for whatever reason. But then they’re not informing that they’ve not had to do that route.
“We do have a duty to protect the public purse and we know that the money’s going is to the right place
“They are still responsible to inform us, for example, they are being paid to do those journeys, so it’s done through a framework, it’s not done on zero contract and remember, they’re only doing this, taxi drivers, for a short period of time a day. They are then taxi drivers for the rest of the time.
“If you speak to taxi firms generally, they will say to you their biggest money maker is local authorities on home to school travel.”
Wilson did not explain any further detail around how stopping the payment of taxis arriving to collect children who were unable to attend that day would ripple out.
Taxi drivers often have to collect escorts from their home address before driving on to collect a child – adding to the potential uncovered fuel bill, driver time and the escort’s time.
The move to stop the payment of drivers could impact upon the lives of pupils experiencing extreme anxiety as a result of educational trauma compounded by Bristol Send failure.
Earlier in 2023, Cabinet papers revealed a ‘significant cohort’ of autistic pupils or those with Social Communication interaction Need (SCIN) – a total of 121 – who were unable to leave home due to anxiety. Through data analysis and parent/carer engagement work, we have identified that there is a significant cohort.
The move to not pay taxi drivers for their time and fuel could pass the pressure onto disabled children, whose fluctuating anxiety can impact school attendance in unpredictable ways.
The statutory duty for Local Authorities to provide HTST for Send pupils to their nearest suitable school – not parental choice – is available here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1165730/Travel_to_school_for_children_of_compulsory_school_age.pdf
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