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Children in Surrey may no longer receive individual taxis to school under new plans

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More children are likely to have to share the organized trip to school with each other rather than alone in a single vehicle, under new plans drawn up by Surrey County Council. Rising fuel demand and costs have led the authority to consider changing its home-to-school transport support policy.

It costs the county council around £40million a year, funded by council tax, to provide school transport support for around 10,000 pupils. About a third of this cost is spent on trips with only one child in the vehicle.

Commissioning director Hayley Connor said: “What we’re looking to do is not have a situation where a child can walk to school and back on their own and then go straight into a classroom with a number of children, which seems incongruous.” Children “if applicable” receive personal training on travel to enable them to take the bus or train instead.

Read more: Autistic boy can return to special school after council forced to overturn taxi decision

The new policy, which will be decided later this month, aims to move away from reliance on solo taxi routes and proposes that children are only given individualized transport “in very specific circumstances…related to medical needs or when the child or young person benefits from individualized support in their places of education or training”.

Commissioning director Hayley Connor said: “What we’re looking to do is not have a situation where a child can walk to school and back on their own and then go straight into a classroom with a number of children, which seems incongruous.”

Children would receive personal travel training “where appropriate” to enable them to take a bus or train instead. Deputy commissioning director Eamonn Gilbert said: “A lot of it is about preparing young people for employment, where being able to get to and from work is a important skill.”

Surrey County Council’s financial strategy to 2026/27 expects £5.8m of efficiency to be found through an improved home-to-school transport policy. Councilor Chris Townsend (Ashtead Independent, working with Ashtead residents) said: ‘A lot of people will see it’s just to try to save money. This is going to require a big sale because there will be a lot of parents who won’t like it.

Councilor Ayesha Azad (Con, Woking South West) said: “I hate to break it at Cllr Townsend, but costs matter to residents, value for money matters to taxpayers and we need to have a service that is obviously sustainable .”

The Children’s Select Committee yesterday (April 7) pushed back on a proposal, which could see school journey times cut from 45 to 75 minutes for some of Surrey’s 541 primary school children.

The council said it would allow greater flexibility to consider journeys by other means and would support the proposed reduction in solo taxis. Ms Connor said: ‘We are looking for flexibility to, at some point, when it makes sense for the child and when it makes sense for planning purposes, to move away from always implementing these guidelines national.

“We have very good examples of real-life cases where it makes sense for us to say that this journey may take 50 minutes, but in fact it is the best school for them.

Members recommended to decision-makers that the recommendation of a maximum travel time of 45 minutes be maintained and “only be exceeded in exceptional circumstances”.

Surrey’s service has come under fire in recent years, with some students going without transport and the council struggling to get what is needed. Asked by Councilor Rachael Lake (Con, Walton) to ensure children would in future have trips in place for day one of term, Rachael Wardell, General Manager for Children, Families and Lifelong Learning of life, said it would be dishonest of him to claim they could guarantee it.

She said: “We will absolutely do our best to make sure of that, but some of the reasons the arrangements fail are beyond our control. Very recent examples include routes rendered at short notice. There are not a large number of providers willing, interested and able to do this work.”

A public consultation on the council’s new policy ended at the end of March and received nearly 700 responses. Seventy-three percent came from young people with special educational needs or their parents or guardians.

The proposed changes and what those who participated in the consultation thought about them

  • Reduce reliance on transporting a child to a vehicle. 59% for, 28% against.
  • Amend maximum travel times for all children to 75 minutes. 62% against, 20% for.
  • Withdraw travel assistance if a child’s behavior is unacceptable and instead grant parents a mileage allowance. This would be the case if a child’s behavior has been dangerous or has the potential to injure themselves and others in the vehicle. 54%, 31% against. One respondent said, “If a child with SEND is displaying dangerous behavior, the first step should be to look at the unmet needs and try to better meet those needs, rather than removing transportation support.”
  • Set up collection points rather than picking up and dropping off students at their homes. 54%, 32% for. One respondent said: ‘My son would need to sit somewhere because he has cerebral palsy, he would get tired and then that would lead to a seizure, due to his autism, whipping and a day disastrous to come to school. I would then be called to pick him up from school, because he could not continue the day at school, with all this stress at the start.
  • Reduce the notice period given in the event of the withdrawal of all travel assistance, from the end of the academic year to four weeks. 54% for, 31% against.
  • Abolish discretionary travel assistance for children under four, affecting 169 children. 63% for, 10% against.
  • Appeals will continue to be a two-step process, but the committee will include council officers as well as councillors. 30% for, 27% against.

Students may need transportation support because of additional needs identified in an Education, Health, and Care Plan (EHCP), or because they live very far from a school or have no there is no public transport available. In the long term, the council plans to invest £139m to create more places in schools, which will help reduce demand for travel support. The new travel assistance policy will be decided in office on April 26.