Councils are warning their school transport budgets for children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) are threatening their financial stability.
A new analysis by Isos Partnership for the County Councils Network (CCN) has warned that costs are set to triple to £1.125bn over the course of a decade.
This is namely due to yearly increases in the number of eligible SEND pupils and parental expectations for individual travel arrangements.
Indeed, the analysis reveals that two thirds of the school transport budget for councils in county areas is on school transport for SEND pupils, with council-funded taxis now just as common as minibuses.
31,500 pupils are using cars and taxis, compared to 31,900 in minibuses
The report also revealed that currently, there are 85,000 SEND pupils with transport needs, with more than 30,000 students a year eligible for cars and taxis to school.
This number has risen exponentially in recent years after SEND legislation led to an explosion in the number of children with Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs): rising from 105,000 eight years ago to 230,000 in 2023.
However, special schools struggled to keep up with demand which has meant that councils are now required to transport tens of thousands of young people over long distances across large rural counties, with many families relying on individual travel arrangements such as taxis.
As a result, the CCN says that many councils have already overspent on their school transport budgets this year, and budgets are getting increasingly out of control with rising demand.
These overspends are predicted to contribute to a £4bn funding deficit over the next three years, with one in 10 councils unsure whether they will be able to prevent financial destitution. This is expected to rise to four in 10 in 2024/25 and six in 10 by 2025/26.
“The reality of a mounting tide of costs in SEND transport”
The CCN is now calling on the government to provide an emergency injection of resources in its Autumn Statement to prevent these spiralling costs from threatening councils’ financial stability.
The report also recommends various medium-term measures, including reforms to transport and SEND legislation, including the introduction of a national means-testing policy.
Other measures include providing capital investment for councils to create more specialist school places and ensuring that SEND tribunals do not rule on cases until there is full consideration of transport costs.
Cllr Roger Gough, Children’s Services Spokesperson for the CCN, said the report shows “the reality of a mounting tide of costs in SEND transport, exacerbated by long distances travelled in large rural areas, complex needs and parental expectations.”
“By 2028 councils England’s counties will be spending over £1.1bn a year on SEND school transport alone,” he said. “Something has to give.”
Cllr Gough says the school transport system has to be “fit to address 21st century challenges” and it must be financially, educationally and ecologically sustainable both for local government and for families.”
“However, reform takes time and the costs we are facing now are simply unsustainable and threaten council finances in the short term. That’s why we are calling on the government to provide an emergency injection of resources at next week’s Autumn Statement,” he said.