23 Nov

Legislation / Statutory Guidance on SEND Transport and Special Schools

Our country has accepted for many decades now that children who used to be considered ineducable are indeed capable of benefitting from education, but that in most cases the existing school system would be unable to best meet their needs and so special schools came into existence. These new schools provided a specialised concentration of resources and expertise that is simply not a practical option at the scale of neighbourhood schools serving the mainstream population.

Over these decades there have been enormous changes in both the mainstream and the special school sectors. This has included the significant broadening of the range of needs of children being met in mainstream schools, but comes nowhere near the situation of appreciable numbers of mainstream schools being equipped with the skilled staff, physical environments and resources that would enable every single child aged 2 – 19 (if not 2 – 25) living within their catchment to attend those schools.

Whilst locally based fully inclusive provision might be the long-term aspiration of the government and of the general population of this country, it must be unacceptable to allow children with levels of SEND who need to access special schools (and their families) to be left in benign neglect due to incompatible aspects of legislation designed to protect their interests but which does nothing of the sort.

The Children & Families Act from 2014, which was designed to improve the education and outcomes for children with SEND (both in special schools and mainstream settings), is itself under scrutiny due to unintended complexity and inconsistent implementation. Crucially, it didn’t even tackle the necessary transport for children to get to their educational settings; that is dealt with separately in the DfE Home to school travel and transport guidance (statutory guidance for local authorities) July 2014.

More and more Local Authorities (LAs) are stating that they are having to move to a model of provision restricted entirely to fulfilling their statutory duties and no more. This is meaning that LAs are cutting any transport for children under 5 years old or over 16, and that anything provided within the limited age range 5 – 16 is based on very rigid interpretations of the guidance.

Focusing on children whose SEND means that they need to attend a special school, this means that all of those aged between 2 – 5 lose any access to transport from their LA, those aged 5 – 16 are faced with individual assessments which are very much at risk of proving to be tainted with the ‘hostile environment’ that could describe the PIP system, just as much as it does the immigration and asylum process that it has become associated with. Beyond 16, typically for students aged 16 – 19 with regard to special schools (but we must not overlook that the 2014 act extended entitlement for young people with SEND to age 25) transport might be provided but at a cost and with a lack of certainty about ongoing provision if granted at all.

I trust that we can take it for granted that articulating just why the Early Years education is so crucially important to children with SEND is not necessary. I think it should also be well understood why the later years of 16 – 19 and of 19 – 25 are equally essential if these children are to have any chance of reaching their potential and having any opportunity to contribute to the economy and of having full or partial independence in their adult life.

The Children & Families Act 2014 requires children to be in education or training up until they are 18. But special schools normally take students through to 19, rather than 18. The same 2014 Act sets out expectations regarding children with SEND accessing support from birth through to the age of 25. But the legislation around transport only provides for children aged 5-16, with separate statutory guidance for post-16 but only to 18, not even to 19, let alone 25. There is a desperate need for one piece of coherent Statutory Guidance from the DfE for children deemed to have SEND, perhaps focused on those with an EHCP who attend special schools (and academies) whether those are independent settings or maintained.

It seems abundantly clear that for children with SEND, of whom the government and all LAs speak with high aspirations and frustration that outcomes are so frequently poor in terms of adult employment and independence, the legislation needs to come into alignment and no longer have different acts clashing and undermining each other.

Therefore our focus must be on what steps are necessary to protect the interests of these important young people in our society, and to do what we can to save the sanity of their ceaselessly supportive and stressed families.

It is no secret that LAs are under tremendous financial pressures across the board, and it cannot be a surprise to any of us that they retract to core services that they are legally required to deliver. The only way that SEND transport for children to attend special schools can be secured is to issue statutory guidance that clearly protects the child’s entitlement.

Such transport is already protected under the 2014 guidance noted above for children attending independent residential special schools. Where children with SEND are able to attend their local mainstream school, it may be the case that many of those children are able to do so because it is possible for their family to get them there (just as they would with a non-disabled sibling). But there is a systemic problem in the gap affecting all children attending state maintained special schools. This could be addressed if the will was there. It would not by any means lead to every single family of special school children having to be provided with costly SEND transport, but it would give all families the reassurance that the safety net was there and that their child could benefit from an appropriate education from the very first day that a place at a special school was confirmed.

Now, having enough places at such schools, that’s perhaps another matter.

Sean O’Sullivan

Ex-Headteacher, Frank Wise School, Banbury