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Ombudsman criticises decision-making at county council over school transport

The Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman has asked Staffordshire County Council to reconsider whether it pays for transport to get a teenager who has autism to her college some 25 miles away.

Since moving to post-16 education, the girl has not received any financial help to get to the college named in her Education, Health and Care Plan.

The council has argued it does not have a duty to provide transport assistance for the girl because she is in post-16 education and could use public transport, if accompanied.

The Ombudsman's investigation found the council failed to take into account that the actual journey time by public transport would be longer than the benchmark 75 minutes recommended in statutory guidance.

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The mother had told the council that it was irrelevant that her daughter's disability affects her ability to use public transport because there is no direct bus link, and a single journey would take two hours. This would mean somebody accompanying her would have to spend all day travelling to and from the school.

Micheal King, Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, said this was not the first case in which the Ombudsman had found "problems" with the way Staffordshire County Council had made decisions about providing school transport.

Mr King said: "Some of the faults we have found in those cases are similar to those here, including not taking individual circumstances into account, and not making decisions in line with its own policy when read in conjunction with statutory guidance."

He added: "I am pleased the council has agreed to my recommendations and hope the learning it will share from this case will help ensure other teenagers are not affected by poor decision making in future."

In this case, the council has agreed to apologise to the girl and her mother and pay the mother £300 to acknowledge the uncertainty and upset caused by the flawed decision making. It will also reconsider their school transport appeal and backdate eligibility to the start of the Autumn 2020 term.

Additionally, the council has agreed to evidence how it has given all relevant staff and decision makers information about the lessons learned from the case.

It will also audit a sample of 20% of transport applications for the 2020-21 school year for post-16 students and check it has made a proper assessment in line with statutory guidance and its own transport statement. If the council finds cases in the sample where the decision is flawed, it should then review all cases of post-16 students who have applied for transport on SEN or other disability grounds and the council has refused it but previously provided it for the 2020-21 year.

Jonathan Price, Staffordshire County Council’s Cabinet member for Education and SEND, said: “We have apologised to the family and put right our mistake in this case and are reviewing how we have assessed post-16 transport applications for students with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities.”

Adam Carey

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