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Have your say on the review of home to school transport
Have your say on the review of home to school transport
Let us know what you think about proposed changes to our home to school transport service.
This consultation included an online public survey as well as various in-person meetings and events. 324 people gave us feedback either through the survey or at the events.
A report including this feedback was considered by our Cabinet meeting on 14 June 2023. It agreed with all of the proposals, except the fare increase for the DCC concessionary bus scheme, which was reduced to £2 instead of the proposed £2.80. For more information you can read the full report in the Cabinet agenda and minutes from Wednesday 14 June 2023.
What's happening and why
We looked at potential changes we can make to our home to school transport service to meet the challenges of increasing demands and operating costs, whilst also exploring opportunities which provide greater flexibility for parents, support the independence of our young people and deliver an environmentally friendly service.
We asked for your views to help shape and refine these proposals for change. As each child, young person and family's circumstances are different, we want to understand what you think about each proposal and how they may affect you. We are also aware that our schools and transport providers will have views too.
An external review of the home to school transport service in 2021 has revealed that we are out of step with other similar councils in how home to school journeys are arranged. For example, we have a higher percentage of single person transport journeys and passenger assistants. We also have a lower take up of personal travel budgets which can enable families to make their own transport choices for their child.
The review also identified that in some instances, we currently go beyond our legal requirements (statutory duty) for home to school transport services. For example, we provide a subsidised concessionary seats scheme to some pupils who do not meet statutory eligibility criteria for free transport. This is adding pressures to our budget and we are having to carefully consider what we can afford to spend money on in the future.
At the current time, we are forecast to spend almost £25 million on providing home to school transport services this year (2022/23). This is nearly £5 million more than originally budgeted. It is also expected that next year's budget will increase by a further £4.8 million.
The increasing cost is due to a number of reasons, which are largely explained by:
increasing demand for home to school transport, especially in relation to children with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) and other special transport requirements
increasing transport costs caused by rising fuel prices, wages and inflation which result in increasing contract prices
The review of the home to school transport service has identified opportunities to make some changes which will help to make the service more flexible and efficient, while ensuring the needs of children and young people are met in a safe, effective, and sustainable way.
The proposals will ensure any child or young person who is eligible for the service under the council's statutory duty will continue to receive support to travel to school, however the consultation is putting forward proposals which will potentially change how some children might travel to school.
About the home to school transport service
The home to school transport service is a statutory (legally required) service which supports over 9,000 children and young people in the county, getting them to and from school each day. It is a complex operation that involves over 1,000 transport routes, supported by over 350 transport providers, ranging from large bus companies to local taxi services.
By law, we must provide home to school transport to children of compulsory school age (five to 16) who meet the following eligibility criteria:
live beyond two miles to the nearest suitable school (below the age of eight)
live beyond three miles to the nearest suitable school (age eight to 16)
live beyond two miles to the nearest suitable school for pupils aged eight to 11 from low income families (for example in receipt of free school meals)
live between two to six miles to one of the three nearest qualifying schools for pupils aged 11 to 16 from low income families
live between two and 15 miles to a church school where this is the nearest school preferred on the grounds of religion or belief for pupils aged 11 to 16 from low income families
live any distance for pupils with a disability or mobility requirement (there are no statutory distances)
We are also required to make transport arrangements for those children who cannot reasonably be expected to walk to school because of their mobility, disability or associated health and safety issues.
The number of pupils in receipt of home to school transport is approximately 9,000 (with latest data at February 2023 showing that this has increased by a further 10%).
The number of transports providers available was just over 300.
The number of transport contracts was over 1,000, of which approximately 50% were Special Educational Needs contracts.
93% of SEND contracts have a passenger assistant provided (benchmark 64%).
41% of SEND related contracts were single passenger vehicles (benchmark 38%).
The latest data (February 2023) identifies that the number of single passenger journeys in all categories has increased from 286 per day in 2019 to 376 per day in 2023.
The average number of passengers per SEND school route is 2.94 (benchmark 3.37).
The proposals in detail
There are five priorities for change. In developing these, we have been guided by the following principles:
providing sustainable transport in line with our environmental policies
providing safe travel options aligned with the needs of children and young people
supporting the development of the skills and the confidence of young people to travel independently
providing an efficient, value for money service
1. Review of the concessionary transport scheme
When a child or young person does not have a statutory entitlement to free home to school transport, sometimes we are able to offer transport through our concessionary seats scheme. We currently provide concessionary transport for 569 children.
The scheme allows parents to apply for available bus seats and pay a subsidised daily fare. We currently charge £1.63 per return journey as a contribution towards the running cost of the service.
Around 60 of the 569 children take up spare seats on an existing bus journey provided for statutorily entitled children and therefore their transport does not require any additional funding by us. However, around 500 children receive transport that does require us to fund additional bus or transport services. We pay over £250,000 per year to provide this additional transport. Many other councils do not provide a scheme of this type.
There are two elements to the review of the concessionary transport scheme:
To help meet the costs of providing the concessionary scheme, it is proposed to increase the daily fare, so that it is in line with commercial public transport rates. The Go North East U19 return fare is currently £2.80 per return journey and we propose to introduce the same level of fare for our concessionary scheme from the start of the next academic year, in September 2023.
We are also proposing to phase out some of the concessionary scheme routes which are currently paid for by us. This may lead to less concessionary seats being available to purchase in future years for children who do not meet the statutory entitlement criteria. This will not be in place for the next academic year as it will take longer to plan and will require further discussion with affected individuals and schools.
Please note, if your school funds and provides its own concessionary transport scheme, it is not included in this review. You will know your child is part of a school administered service if you receive the transport invoice from the school, not us.
2. Consider how we can more effectively and efficiently support the provision of single person journeys and passenger assistants on transport
The needs of some children, particularly those with SEND, are best met by being able to travel with a passenger assistant and in some cases, as a single passenger. We understand this and will continue to meet those needs where they are identified.
However, this is the most expensive form of home to school transport and forms a significant part of our costs. Over recent years, there has been a large increase in the number of young people receiving single person transport and/or a passenger assistant.
The 2021 review identified that Durham has a higher proportion of single person journeys than other similar councils. Durham also has a much higher percentage of passenger assistants on routes provided for children with SEND than other similar county councils included in the review.
We therefore need to consider how we provide the most cost effective and efficient transport services. This will include reviewing the way we provide home to school travel assistance, including the provision of single person transport and passenger assistants. In some instances, this may involve considering alternative travel options which still meet the needs of the child in discussion with parents and schools, as well as considering how young people's needs and abilities may change over time.
3. Develop independence skills in young people and introduce an updated personal travel budget scheme
Travel solutions which provide more flexible travel options for families and more opportunities to develop the independence and social skills of young people are not widely available in the county at the moment. These options can provide a dual benefit in that as well as delivering positive benefits for the young people who are able to take them up, they also have the potential to support a more cost efficient home to school transport service and enable us to allocate the budget more effectively.
There are three elements to this proposal.
Independent Travel Training Scheme
We are proposing to introduce and offer independent travel training to support greater independence and socialisation of children and young people with SEND.
The 2021 review highlighted that independent travel schemes have been shown to be extremely successful and, in some councils, over 50 children every year are helped to travel independently. The schemes have also produced better outcomes for young people over the longer term as they can help young people get to school or college more independently as well as undertaking out of school activities during evenings, weekends and school holidays. This can make travelling to college or work placements easier and can also help their transition to adulthood by giving them valuable life skills.
While achieving this level of independence will not be possible for all young people with SEND, especially some of those children with the most complex needs, we believe those that are able, should be given the opportunity and support to try it. We will work with families, schools and carer groups to develop and set up the scheme and ensure it meets the needs of young people who would like to be involved.
Pick up points
We are also proposing to introduce pick up points for children with special needs where this is appropriate. These are specific locations which are used by a child or young person with SEND to meet the bus or taxi, rather than being picked up and dropped off at their own home. The maximum distance from home of a pick up point will depend on a range of circumstances and will be assessed on an individual basis. This reduces the time needed to pick up pupils and can support children and young people to become more independent. Pickup points are already operating in many other council areas.
Where the introduction of pickup points is considered, we will work with the parents and carers of young people on those routes and in such circumstances, will carefully consider and assess the individual child's needs as well as any mobility issue and or disability of their parents.
Personal Travel Budgets
We are also proposing to review and simplify our Personal Travel Budget scheme for children with SEND and make it more widely available.
A personal travel budget provides a parent or carer with a financial allocation and allows them to make their own arrangements for transporting their child to school. They have a dual benefit in that they increase choice and flexibility for the family and can also help us to provide a more efficient service.
In many local councils, Personal Travel Budgets are typically offered to the parents of SEND passengers as this group of young people mainly represent those in receipt of special transport arrangements. However, in County Durham there is also an opportunity to offer Personal Travel Budgets to young people in some rural locations.
4. Review unsafe walking routes and existing travel routes across the county, especially for schools with high volumes of routes
A child qualifies for free transport to their nearest suitable school where the shortest walking route(s) are assessed as unsuitable to walk safely, whether they are accompanied or not.
It is proposed to consider developing a programme where some of the county's unsafe routes can be made safe through road and pavement improvements, so that children and young people can walk or cycle to school. This may provide added benefits to the wider local community too, in terms of physical activity and wellbeing.
If, following improvements, an assessment results in a route that was previously categorised as unsafe being recategorised as safe, free home to school transport will be withdrawn from the start of the next academic year to provide parents and children with the opportunity to prepare for the change.
The 2021 review also identified that there are opportunities to reduce the number of individual transport routes operated by us. As a low estimate, the review identified potential savings of 11% on average for schools with multiple routes. Any reduction in routes would also have the potential to help towards our environmental goals.
Therefore, we are also proposing to carry out an assessment of our current transport routes, particularly in those schools with a high number of routes. Following the assessment, where it is appropriate and safe to do so, we are proposing to reduce the number of separate vehicles transporting young people to school. In taking forward any programme of this nature, we will continue to ensure that eligible young people are transported to school appropriately and in accordance with their needs.
5. Review how we buy home to school transport services
The home to school transport service is operating in a challenging environment of increasing demand, price inflation and contract costs. There are also challenges around the supply of transport and market competition in some geographical areas.
Therefore, it is proposed to review how we commission our services to ensure they are sustainable for the future as well as delivering value for money on routes and contracts. This will include looking at best practice in other council areas and working with the transport providers to promote healthy competition for contracts, while ensuring that appropriate supply is maintained.
How to have your say
The closing date for comments was 5.00pm on Wednesday 12 April 2023.
What happens next
Your feedback will be considered as part of developing the proposals and plans to implement changes to the Service. A further report will be made to our Cabinet in summer 2023 which will set out the findings from this consultation and recommendations on how to take forward the proposals.
We will keep all our parents, carers, schools and transport providers fully up to date with what's happening and involve them in planning services and making decisions where it is appropriate to do so.