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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Ealing council faces criticisms for denying SEND students transport

Ealing Council has been found at fault by the Local government and Social Care Ombudsman for three separate decisions refusing students with special needs transport to school.

Ealing Council has been found at fault by the Local government and Social Care Ombudsman for three separate decisions refusing students with special needs transport to school. For each of the mistakes made by the council, they have been ordered to pay a symbolic £250 to the families.

All the cases saw the council responsible for refusing the student’s transport through some kind of fault, often found in the process of reviewing each case’s eligibility with certain factors seemingly not taken into account. The Ombudsman in all cases reiterates that it cannot directly decide whether the council were correct in refusing transport support, but encourages the council to reconsider its decision.

In the first case, a child was attending a special needs school more than three miles from his home. His mother made a request to the council to provide transport for him to get to and from school.

She was refused, with the council saying that her child’s special needs did not meet the criteria required to be offered the service. It also said free transport is available by public bus from Transport for London lasting 48 minutes which it considers suitable.

When she appealed the decision the mother told the council that her son needed the special support because she does not drive; her son has autism, is anxious and displays challenging behaviour when travelling and is unaware of danger and runs into traffic.

She also added that he has sensory issues with noise and crowded transport and as a result, the walk to the bus stop could take 30 minutes instead of 10 and her son would not arrive at school in any condition to learn. The father works and is unable to take his son to school by car.

The council refused her appeal again saying that her son’s circumstances were not severe enough to warrant the support. She appealed a second time and was told that the council had considered all the difficulties that may occur during the journey, but decided one parent was available to accompany the child.

The Ombudsman found a number of faults with the council’s response to the mother, particularly regarding the idea that accompanying her child on the bus made it ‘suitable’ transport. In its consideration, the Ombudsman wrote: “The Council continued to rely on its decision Ms M [mother] should accompany B [son] on the bus to school to make the transport provided by Transport for London suitable. There do not appear to be any grounds in the legislation or statutory guidance for the Council to reach this decision. This is fault.”

It added that the student is not expected to walk to school because he lives beyond the statutory walking distance of three miles. It concluded that there is nothing in the legislation or guidance for the council to decide whether a parent must accompany a child on any journey other than a walking journey to school. If a child lives beyond the walking distance, he is entitled to transport.

In the second case, Ealing Council refused a child who attends primary school less than a mile away from his home. The Council said it was not required to provide transport as there was suitable free transport available from Transport for London and the child lived less than a mile away from school.

The council added it was a parents’ responsibility to accompany a child if he could not travel independently. The mother appealed the decision saying that her son received a higher rate of mobility allowance and assistance at school and was immunodeficient making him vulnerable to infection using public transport but was unsuccessful.

According to the Ombudsman, the council is only responsible for considering whether the child can walk to school, not whether there is alternative free transport available. It says citing this as an explanation for refusal is a fault. During a second appeals process, the mother was told the hearing had been cancelled but the council referred to talking to her at the meeting in its documents.

The Ombudsman added: “The Council referred to Mrs M speaking at the appeal hearing when in fact she did not attend.”

It concluded: “Taken together, these factors call the Council’s decision into question. The Council has made mistakes, taken irrelevant factors into consideration, and failed to adequately refer to relevant information.”

It also wrote: “The council took the entire school year to consider Mrs M’s [the mother’s] application and subsequent appeals.” The Council’s policy says a parent will receive a decision on a stage 1 appeal within four weeks. The mother waited 11 weeks and she waited 21 weeks for the second appeal more than double the 9 weeks allotted to consider it.

In the third case, the council told a student that they would no longer be providing travel assistance to college. The council reviewed the student’s transport in May 2023 and decided it would end at the conclusion of his term at school. The council provided transport by taxi until July 2023.

The council said:

  • it is a parent’s responsibility to accompany a child to school;
  • the council has no legal duty to provide travel assistance to young people aged over 16;
  • the council advised the student’s family and college to secure independent travel training for him.

At the time the student was undergoing training to be an independent travel with his college. The mother appealed the decision saying that her son was not expected to be an independent traveller before the end of his final year at college, and no family members were able to help out.

The council said again it had no legal duty to provide travel assistance, refusing the appeal. A second appeal with made this time with the support of the student’s college. However, it was unsuccessful.

In its consideration, the Ombudsman said that the council’s claim that it does not have a duty to provide travel assistance to young people over the age of 16 is incorrect. It also described the council’s decision to end its transport before the student had completed his independent travel training as ‘irrational’.

In all three of the cases, the council was asked to reconsider its decisions and pay £250 in symbolic compensation for its faults.

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