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Blackpool families feeling cost after council refuses free seat on school bus

Rachel and Mark Leech with son Jensen
Rachel and Mark Leech with son Jensen
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Blackpool parents today warned they face hardship because their children are being turned down for free school transport despite having disabilities which means the journey to attend lessons is a daily struggle.

Even though youngsters attend special schools due to their additional educational needs, in some cases council chiefs are saying this does not make them eligible for free transport.

Figures show around 52 families are affected.

Now campaigners are calling for more support for families of disabled children who already face challenges in getting their youngsters to school.

They claim Blackpool Council’s stance is contrary to Department of Education guidelines.

Rachel and Mark Leech, whose son Jensen, seven, is a pupil at Park School in Blackpool, say they have been refused free transport because they live less than two miles from the school.

But Jensen’s learning disability means he cannot walk to classes.

Rachel said: “Jensen doesn’t have a sense of danger and he gets tired very quickly. I wouldn’t feel safe walking him near to busy roads.

“So I drive him to school.

“I work full-time and my husband, who is self-employed, often works away from home, so I drop Jensen off but it means I can’t get to work until 9.30am.

“It’s also very stressful because as more children are being turned down for free transport, more parents are having to drive which causes congestion.

“In the meantime, some children do get free transport using mini-buses and I see these arriving at the school with empty spaces on them.

“It would be so much easier if all the children got the free transport. We would contribute towards the cost if necessary.

“It’s hard enough for families like ours, and getting school transport would really make a huge difference.”

Nikki and Wayne Mayler live in Marton and their son Lucas, 13, who is dyslexic and autistic, goes to Red Rose School in St Annes.

Nikki said: “Lucas had been in a mainstream school and we got him into Red Rose under parental preference.

“The council said he is not eligible for free transport.

“I take him and pick him up. It’s another £250 a month to send him there, with the extra fuel costs and breakfast club.

“But that’s where he has to go because he has made such a lot of improvement since being in the right school for him.”

Blackpool-based Lee Richardson, a member of the National Autistic Society, says children have already been assessed in order to get a place at a special school, so it is wrong for Blackpool Council to assess them for free transport.

He said guidelines published by the Department of Education say children with Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) should qualify for free school transport.

Mr Richardson added: “To be at a specialist school you have to go through a rigorous screening process to meet strict criteria of need.

“Therefore to put a policy in place to choose who is suitable for transport need is wrong.

“The only basis of assessment is they need to match the children with a suitable form of transport that meets their own expectations and that of their families so they arrive at school in the right frame of mind to learn.

“It is a well established fact the majority of these families are some of the very lowest income families in the country as additional costs compared to an ordinary family are massive.”

Blackpool Council says on its website that where pupils attend a special school or other placement other than one recommended by the council “then the parent willl be responsible for arranging and paying for any necessary transport”.

But where it is recommended by the council, it says “transport assistance will be given subject to the criteria” but “this is not an automatic right”.

Each pupil will be assessed individually with a formal application and assessment.

Coun Graham Cain, cabinet secretary for resilient communities, said: “Each year Blackpool Council commissions services so that we can provide transport assistance to help many young people attend school.

“In line with the Home to School and College Transport policy we need to review services and plan for the next academic year so that we have sufficient transport resources and eligible young people receive the correct form of assistance.

“As part of that process we have written to parents and carers to advise that they need to complete a transport application.

“To help applicants we have provided additional information through our schools and offered and provided personal assistance to people to guide and help them complete the form.

“Each application is reviewed and carefully considered by a group of professional specialists who assess the eligibility and needs of each person.

“Should any parent, carer or young person who has applied for transport and had it declined wish to appeal a decision full details of how to do this can be found in the original correspondence.

“Alternatively, people can contact the independent Special Educational Needs and Disabilities, Advice and Support Service on 0800 092 2332.”

But Coun Tony Williams, leader of the Conservatives on Blackpool Council, branded the refusal of free transport for some families a ‘cost cutting exercise.”

He said: “No doubt the council see this as a money saving exercise, but by removing existing free transport it can have serious implications for families who are trying to balance looking after children who need support and keeping down a job.

“In these circumstances it means a complete change in family arrangements and increases the number of cars trying to park outside school.

“There will be no excuses for any misinterpretation or for putting money before the welfare of all our children.”