Birmingham City Council has agreed to revise its home to transport policy and review all its decisions to issue a travel pass over the past three years following several complaints to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman (LGSCO).
The Ombudsman found the parents of children with a travel pass, in two investigations, had to accompany their children to school because their child could not manage the journey independently.
The LGSCO said the children should have been eligible for free transport as they lived more than statutory walking distance from their nearest suitable school, and the council could not insist the parents accompanied their children. The council also failed to demonstrate how the journey to school would be safe and reasonably stress-free for either child, according to the report.
In both cases, the Ombudsman said it found inadequate record keeping. It also found the council did not follow statutory guidance as it did not invite the parents to their stage two appeals and its policy at the time did not allow them to make either verbal or written representations.
In the first case, the council refused a mother's application for school transport for her daughter, who has autistic spectrum disorder and attends a special school.
The mother said she could not take her on public transport as there was no direct bus route to her school, and it would be particularly difficult taking her on multiple buses as she used a special needs pushchair. She said her daughter could hurt herself and react physically when she becomes upset. She asked the council to provide her with a taxi or minibus to school.
Despite her request, the council decided the daughter could travel on public transport and said her parents should accompany her to school. In August 2019, the council dismissed the mother's appeal. In April 2020 the council overturned the original decision and offered the girl a place on a minibus.
In the second case, a mother applied for school transport for her teenage son to get to his special school. She told the council her son was "high risk", had no social skills, needed constant supervision, and could become physical when distressed. She said neither she nor her husband could take her son to school because her other children with additional or complex needs also needed to be taken to school, and she had her own physical and mental health difficulties.
Instead of offering the son a place on school transport, the family was offered a travel pass to use on public transport and told to accompany him to school. The boy would have had to catch three buses to get to school, which would leave him confused. The mother appealed the council's decision and included information from her son's paediatrician, but the council concluded there were "no exceptional circumstances".
Michael King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said: "The problems I have found with Birmingham City Council's home to school transport policy have had a significant effect on both families, with the children's education suffering as a result.
"Free must mean free, but despite being offered 'free public transport' in both cases the parents incurred extra costs because this was not safe, and they had to take their children to school either by taxi or using their own car."
Mr King added: "I am concerned that the very similar faults I have found in these cases mean it is possible other families have been similarly affected. Other parents and carers may have also incurred costs to access the transport their children are entitled to.
"I am pleased Birmingham City Council has agreed to review its policy and recent decisions on this matter, which should ensure other parents are not left out of pocket and inconvenienced by inappropriate decision making."
Following the Ombudsman's investigation, the council has agreed to apologise to both families.
Birmingham will pay the mother £150 for her time and trouble in the first family's case and repay any costs she incurred to transport her child to school. It will also pay £250 for the stress and inconvenience caused, and a further £500 to recognise the impact the failure to provide suitable home to school transport had on her child accessing education.
In the second family's case, the council has agreed to pay the mother £150 for her time and trouble and a further £300 to recognise the stress and inconvenience caused. It will also review the family's application and offer the son an alternative means of school transport which does not require his parents to accompany him, and pay the mother reasonable travel expenses from 13 March 2019.
The council has said it will remind officers about their duties under the law when making decisions about home to school transport applications and appeals. It will also revise its home to school transport policy and review all decisions it has made to issue travel passes since September 2018.
Kevin Crompton, Birmingham's interim Director of Education and Skills, said the council fully accepted the findings and recognised the families were "badly let down by the city council when we should have been there to help".
Mr Crompton said: "We have appointed someone to continue to review the application of our policies and to ensure all officers are fully aware of all details of the home to school transport policy. The council has made huge investments in a new and very experienced transport team led by experts in their field.
"Birmingham's home to school transport service is a major operation and we know some parents have experienced difficulties and frustrations, which is why we are continuing to make improvements to the service as well as how we engage with families."
Mr Crompton added: "There has been significant investment in capacity to improve our service; this includes key areas such as compliance and contract management, eligibility, and mobilisation of services. We have invested in new ICT systems to provide a better service to residents.
"There are weekly checks on performance of all areas which allows the service to mitigate any emerging risks. This has seen 99-100% of routes, since wider re-opening of schools in March, operating daily and to time and has also highlighted challenges in answering calls, allowing us to invest in capacity to deal with this.
"I would like to reassure parents and carers that we are working hard to ensure they get the service their children need and deserve."