School transport costs go £3million over budget

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An “unprecedented” demand has led to a £3million overspend in the amount Essex County Council is spending on school transport.

The forecast full year overspend is mainly due to home to school transport.

This has two main drivers; £1.9million in special educational needs due to demographic growth and a £1.2million overspend due to an increase in mainstream transport in average contract price and a small increase in pupil numbers.

This second overspend has increased by almost £1million since the half year report.

The figures were revealed in a cabinet meeting on Tuesday, January 21.

The council says its new school transport policy was necessary to save a predicted £3.7million in four years.

In 2015 Essex County Council revised its school transport policy to become the first local education authority in the UK to abolish the right of children to free school transport to their catchment secondary schools if they live more than three miles away.

Instead pupils were offered free transport to their ‘nearest’ school, measured as the crow flies. The council also stopped free transport for young people in further education.

While the council has said there have been benefits, the number of children with special educational needs (SEN) has rocketed.

The number of pupils with an education, health and care plan in Essex increased from 7,288 in 2016 to 8,948 in 2019.

The council has said there has been some financial savings due to the policy. In 2018/19, the council spent £2million less on mainstream home to school transport, when compared to 2014/15.

But the latest figures have been seized upon by critics who have argued against the transport policy from the start.

Scott Wilson, from Essex Against School Transport Cuts, said: “They always try to cover it up with a special needs excuse because the special needs transport requirements are increasing.

“But now it seems the mainstream costs have really caught up with them and they will be rising despite more or less the same number of pupils, because they’ve lost all the efficiencies they had taking the kids to schools the parents wanted to send them to.”

Labour councillor Julie Young said: “A lot of pain has been passed over to unsuspecting families who now have to pay in excess of £700 to get children to their catchment school and we were told it was entirely necessary for the county council to manage home to school transport and save that money. It hasn’t saved that. It has failed.

“Their strategy has not delivered the saving it was set out to do, in fact it still overspent.”

Ray Gooding, cabinet member for education, said: “This exemplifies the unprecedented increase in demand generally and something we need to deal with and make provision for in future years.

“That is something that without doubt is escalating significantly, particularly in terms of the special education needs which no-one would deny is a very important part of what we do.”

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Piers Meyler

Local Democracy Reporter