This briefing sets out the findings from recent analysis by London Councils into the current cost pressures and challenges facing transport services for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND). The cost of delivering SEN transport services has been rising in line with demand trends for children with SEND, since the introduction of the Children and Families Act 2014 which extended the age range of eligibility for support and raised parental expectations. Local capacity has not been able to keep up with this demand, leading to increasing numbers of children travelling out of borough to access education provision, which has increased transport costs significantly. These pressures have been exacerbated in many areas due to the additional operating costs facing services during and following the Covid-19 pandemic.
To understand the impact of Covid 19 on SEN transport services, London Councils undertook a survey of all the borough SEN transport services in November 2021 which received 28 responses (86% response rate). We also convened a meeting at the same time for all SEN transport leads, which 45 officers attended, representing the majority of London boroughs. This briefing sets out the key findings from the analysis of the survey returns and the discussion points raised at the meeting.
Overall costs and demand for SEN transport services in London
Our analysis of borough survey returns from 28 London local authorities reveals that overall spend on SEN transport services will increase by 37% over 4 years. This amounts to a forecast spend of approximately £167,161,600 this year across 28 boroughs. However, there is a significant amount of variation across the boroughs.
As chart A demonstrates, the 28 London boroughs experienced a collective reduction in outturn in 2020/21 as many children with SEND did not attend school for a significant part of that year due to Covid. However the costs in 2021/22 have risen sharply.
There has been a 12% increase in the number of children accessing SEN transport services in the last three years, across 28 London boroughs. This is an increase from 17,876 in 2018/19 to 20,036 in 2020/21. And this is despite many boroughs experiencing a drop in demand in 2019/20 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2021, London had 72,000 children and young people on an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) – an increase of 97% since 2010 and 75% since the introduction of the Children’s and Families Act in 2014.
From the survey returns and discussion with SEN transport teams, there are a number of reasons why Covid has led to an increase in the cost of delivery of SEN transport services. These include:
- Requirement to socially distance all vehicles, increasing the number of vehicles and staff required to transport the same number of children
- Additional single passenger routes operated due to social distancing
- High levels of staff absence due to sickness and shielding
- Additional PPE on all transport for drivers and travel assistants
- Many drivers and travel assistants moved to other, less risky jobs during the pandemic, leading to a shortage with boroughs and companies struggling to retain staff.
- Splitting routes between schools or between boroughs due to the need to maintain social bubbles.
In its submission  to the Spending Review 2021, London Councils called for the Government to review the impact of Covid-19 on services for children with SEND, including transport, and provide additional funding to enable services to cover costs incurred due to the pandemic.
Current and ongoing challenges to service delivery during Covid-19:
Since social distancing requirements were lifted in July 2021 most boroughs have returned to normal service levels. However, they are now facing a number of new challenges:
- The impact of Covid on many vulnerable children and young people has led to an increase in demand over for SEND services as a result of lockdowns. SEN transport staff on the frontline are reporting a considerable increase in need and significant challenging behaviours over the past 18 months.
- Most local provision is heavily oversubscribed now and there is an urgent need to grow local special education provision to accommodate rising needs.
- Since Covid many of the routes that were previously shared across boroughs and across schools have stopped, due to the limits put in place not to mix children from different schools, which is driving up costs. Most of these routes are still paused due to ongoing uncertainty around Covid. Resuming shared routes would reduce the number of drivers required, which would lessen the issue of driver shortage.
- Many schools have introduced new queuing systems due to Covid, which have meant long waits for buses and taxis to unload and sharing routes between schools is still not possible with these schools.
- Colleges often have different start and finish times depending on courses and SEN transport services are struggling to work with colleges in many areas to work around this. Some boroughs have worked with colleges to introduce shuttle bus services in some of their biggest colleges, but this relies on colleges accommodating students while they are waiting for the next bus.
- During the Covid lockdowns many children with SEND who had previously not been eligible for SEN transport support were temporarily moved on to SEN transport to avoid the risk of infection. Similarly some children who usually travel by bus had been moved to taxis during Covid due to the requirement to socially distance. These temporary changes have raised parental expectations and many boroughs are finding it difficult to change transport support for these families.
- TfL has raised fees for taxi licences across London following Covid, which is making some taxi companies consider whether it is worth their while to continue to operate. Some companies have already closed due to rising costs and have cited the increase in fees for licences as a contributing factor.
The borough SEN transport teams are looking at a range of innovative, collaborative practice aimed at improving outcomes and reducing costs. The challenge of Covid has made it increasingly difficult to plan strategically but has also increased the impetus to work together with neighbouring boroughs to help to reduce costs. The significant challenge around tackling climate change, particularly whether they can make service innovations to reduce air pollution is also a priority for many boroughs.
London Councils’ analysis has identified a number of key challenges currently facing the London borough SEN transport services, particularly due to long term demand and Covid-related pressures.However, there are some areas where London Councils can take forward work to support improvement work in the boroughs, including by sharing practice where boroughs have managed to overcome these challenges. London Councils will consider how it can support the boroughs to make service improvements and cost savings by brokering collaboration and promoting opportunities, for example on how to reduce air pollution.
Given the huge increase in costs in recent years of delivering SEN transport services which are still experiencing growing demand coupled with the impact of Covid, the government should increase funding to support these services. London Councils has already written to the Secretary of State for Education to raise these issues. There is also a need for the Department for Education to update its current Home to School Transport guidance to consider the current context of operating in and following a pandemic, which would support local authority decision-making going forward.
SEN transport funding is included in the general grant from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC). London Councils will be lobbying for a fairer funding allocation for London boroughs as part of the formula review, which is expected later this year. SEN transport will be included in this lobbying with an emphasis on ensuring that funding allocations keep up with costs. This will build on London Councils’ ongoing lobbying work to ensure that the High Needs Block of the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) is appropriately funded to keep up with rising demand for services for children with SEND.
Clearly, SEN transport services are only one part of the wider system of support services for children with SEND. It will be important to take into account the demand and Covid-related pressures across the overall system, as well as SEN transport, in responding to any proposals set out in the Government’s anticipated SEND review.The need to create more local, inclusive provision would be a significant step in improving outcomes for many children with SEND, as well as helping to reduce costs, particularly for transport. London Councils hopes to be able to work constructively with the Government on embedding change across the system to support improved outcomes for all children and young people with SEND.