Free school travel for disabled teenagers faces axe as Sunderland struggles with funding cuts

Liberal Democrat campaigner Niall Hodson at Millfield Metro Station
Liberal Democrat campaigner Niall Hodson at Millfield Metro Station
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Hundreds of parents of teenagers with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND)could be asked to pay towards their travel to school or college.

It’s a move which would save cash-strapped Sunderland City Council about £100,000 per year.

This plan seems to be a penalty on those young people who find themselves in a position of genuine need

Niall Hodson, Wearside LibDem spokesman

Cabinet members of the Labour-led authority will hear proposals on Wednesday to scrap free home-to -school transport for 245 learners over 16 with SEND and ask families to contribute £651 towards annual costs.

But the proposal has been criticised by political opponents, who say it will be a “penalty” to those in need.

The council, which faces budget reductions of £110million by 2020, currently provides transport for 926 SEND youngsters, aged from three to 25 years, although it is not legally obliged to fund it for those over 16.

It also provides taxis for 245 students with SEND over the age of 16 at an annual cost of £591,797.

A report to cabinet says the average cost of transporting a post-16 student by taxi is £2,415 and proposes a contribution of £651 from families, which reflects the cost of an all-zone Nexus pass for travel within the city.

If approved, parents could start paying towards travel from September, with an exception made for low- income families who meet the criteria for free school meals. The report adds that payment options would also be looked at to “ease the impact of any proposed contribution scheme”.

The report adds: “The proposed funding contribution scheme assumes that most post-16 learners with SEND will still require to be transported via taxi to their place of learning and in many cases this is likely to be the case. However, wherever possible, and supported by the independent travel programme described above, the intention would be that students travel independently to school/college/training provider, which would be significantly less cost to the council.

“If the proposal to introduce a charging contribution scheme proposal is agreed, families may decide that rather than paying a contribution to the council for the cost of the taxi provision, they would prefer to purchase a travel pass themselves to allow the young person to travel independently.

“There are clear benefits in terms of the life skills that will be developed through this independent travel as well as flexibility for the young person to use the pass during evenings and weekends.”

However, Wearside’s Liberal Democrats have urged the council to rethink the proposals of parental contributions, saying they have been approached by concerned families.

Party spokesman Niall Hodson said: “Labour councillors in charge of Sunderland City Council have said that they will protect services for vulnerable children and adults, but this proposal to cut travel support for young people seems to be doing precisely the opposite. In fact, this plan seems to be a penalty on those young people who find themselves in a position of genuine need.

“It’s vital that young people with special educational needs and disabilities receive the same access to education as everyone else.

“Where young people cannot make their way to school or college by public transport, or be taken by a member of their family, it is only right that the council provides support.”

l Is your family potentially affected by the proposal? Have your say by calling the newsdesk on 501 7326.