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Transporting SEND children to school costing £8.4m more than budgeted

Posted on - 24th April, 2024 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Education, Fylde News, Preston News, Ribble Valley News, Schools, South Ribble News, Wyre News
County Hall in Preston. Pic: Blog Preston
County Hall in Preston. Pic: Blog Preston

Transporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) to school is forecast to cost Lancashire County Council £8.4m more than it had budgeted for this year.

The predicted overspend for 2023/24 has increased by almost £2.5m in just the two months since it was last estimated.

The authority has now invested in around 50 new minibuses to expand its own, already large, fleet in an attempt to drive down the cost of using privately-hired vehicles.

Read more: Potholes the ‘number one priority’ for Lancashire residents

A meeting of County Hall’s scrutiny management board heard that the ballooning bill was the result of recent increases in the number of children with special needs who are entitled to home-to-school transport as part of their education, health and care plans (EHCPs).

Statutory guidance specifying the ideal maximum daily travelling time for a child – 45 minutes each way for primary pupils and 75 minutes for secondary school children – has also had an impact.

The new vehicles are due to be delivered next month and County Cllr Mike Goulthorp – lead member for finance and resources – said he expected them to ease pressure on the authority’s budget “quite considerably”.

“These are…eye-watering costs in many instances in terms of [private] hire transport.  We have already taken steps to reduce our need [for] what I would call taxis,” he explained.

County Cllr Goulthorp added that ongoing efforts to create SEND units within mainstream schools across the county would also help bring down the transport bill.

“It is complex [and] there are two issues – where the kids are actually going to be taught [and] looked after and…how we get them [there] in a safe and efficient manner.

“But the first priority is the children,” he said.

Oliver Starkey, the county council’s head of service for public and integrated transport, said the new minibuses will be smaller than the existing in-house fleet, which will make driver recruitment easier – as no additional qualifications are required to take charge of them.

He also added that fewer passenger assistants would be needed to carry the same number of children.

The committee was told that an underspend within the highways service – as a result of greater than expected income from utility companies and housing developers – was helping to offset some of the burgeoning SEND transport costs.

However, committee member Rob Bailey expressed concern that the situation amounted to the highways budget “subsidising” special needs transport demand.

Director of finance Neil Kissock stressed that the budget for road resurfacing was part of the capital programme, whereas the underspend had occurred as part of the county council’s day-to-day – or revenue – spending.

“There’s no indication that this position is predicated on reducing spend [on] potholes,” Mr. Kissock said.

However, County Cllr Bailey said “additional [pothole] schemes” could have been funded from the revenue underspend.

County Cllr Goulthorp added that SEND transport had always “traditionally” come under the control of the authority’s highways management structure.

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