England’s biggest council has told Sky News it faces a “simply unsustainable” funding crisis due to the skyrocketing cost of transporting special needs children to school.
The county councils now spend more money on taxis and minibuses for SEND pupils (Special Educational Needs or Disability) than on family, youth and start insurance combined.
The school transport budgets are described by the County Council network as “increasingly out of control”.
Some even face future bankruptcy if school transport costs remain the same without intervention, it said.
It also warns that some “discretionary services” such as libraries and recycling centers may have to be cut.
A report by the Isos Partnership, released early to Sky News, predicts the cost of sending children with educational needs to school will top £1.1bn. in the next five years.
That figure would see costs treble over a decade from £397m. in 2018/19 to £1.1bn. in 2027/28.
In the same period, the number of pupils with free school transport has increased by 120% from 58,000 to 129,000.
The increase in costs has been driven by the “explosion” in the number of children receiving Education, Health and Care Plans (ECHPs), which state necessary support including transport.
ECHPs are legal documents that all councils must comply with.
The number of children on these plans has doubled in eight years from 105,000 to 230,000 this year.
The same number of SEND pupils now also use cars and taxis as they are minibuses to get to school.
Councilor Tim Oliver, chairman of the County Council Network, describes the rising costs of transport as the “single biggest pressure” facing councils.
He told Sky News that the current situation is “simply not sustainable”.
“The consequences are that if we cannot balance the budgets, then we will have to stop other services,” he said.
“It’s as simple as that… the discretionary services, so technically it will be the libraries, some municipalities may have to close their libraries or shorten their opening hours.
“We will have to look at the costs of the recycling stations.
“The statutory responsibility is to look after vulnerable people and vulnerable children, social care responsibility, everything else is generally discretionary provision, so all of these will potentially be at risk.”
The County Council Network warns of a £4bn funding shortfall. over the next three years.
One in 10 councils say they are at risk of insolvency this year, rising to four in 10 in 2024/25 and six in 10 in 2025/26.
Council leaders are calling on the government to step in and provide an “emergency injection of resources” in next week’s Autumn Statement mini-budget.
Lyndsay Critchlow’s two sons have been diagnosed with Autism and Pathological Demand Avoidance (PDA).
Both Harvey, eight, and William, 10, attend a special school about 40 minutes’ drive from home.
Their parents cannot drive, so the boys are transported to lessons by a private taxi and personal assistant paid by the municipality.
It costs around DKK 17,000 per year.
“It’s a lot of money,” says Lyndsay, “but there was nowhere around here that we could find that could meet their needs”.
“Their anxiety is the lowest I’ve ever seen… it’s a lifeline”.
Eight-year-old Harvey says he really enjoys going to school now “because they understand me more”.
The boys’ father, Philip Critchlow, also describes the difference between his sons: “Two years ago they were completely different children than you see today.
“Quite literally, they were quiet and inattentive and might say something strange.
“And it was heartbreaking to see. Now they have to be kids again.
“And that’s worth more than anything else.”
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A government spokesman said: “Every child should have access to a high-quality education, including those with special educational needs.
“The councils are responsible for providing the right support for children in their areas, including school transport.
“Our published SEND and AP Improvement Plan sets out how we will ensure that all children with special needs and disabilities get the support they need.
“We are also making significant investment in the high needs budget, which increases by a further £440m for 2024-25, bringing total funding to £10.5bn – an increase of over 60% since 2019-20.”