England’s largest councils have warned that spiralling school transport budgets for special education needs and disabilities (SEND) students are threatening their financial stability and long-term sustainability.
Analysis conducted by Isos Partnership for the County Councils Network (CCN) and launched ahead of the CCN Annual Conference has revealed that costs are set to triple to £1.125bn over the course of a decade.
The report warned that yearly increases in the numbers in addition to the widening of eligibility for SEND diagnoses have exacerbated the limits of school transportation options, which are struggling to meet demand.
Due to the complexity of children’s needs, taxis are now on par with minibuses as the most common form of council-funded school transport.
Parental expectations and demand for individual travel arrangements means their use to transport children with SEND increased by 36% from 2019 to 2023.
As a result, some 31,500 pupils are using cars and taxis, compared to 31,900 in minibuses. Just 2,200 SEND pupils are transported using traditional buses, with councils in county areas spending substantially more on these services than they do on Sure Start, Family Services and Youth Services combined.
Earlier this month, the CCN warned that these overspends were contributing to £4bn funding deficit over the next three years, with one in 10 councils unsure or not confident they could prevent insolvency this year – rising to four in 10 in 2024/25 and six in 10 by 2025/26.
Council leaders are calling upon the government to provide emergency resources at the autumn statement to prevent these spiralling costs threatening the financial sustainability of their authorities.
The Children’s Services spokesperson for the County Councils Network, councillor Roger Gough, said: “Councils work hard to ensure that every eligible child receives school transport, and we know this is a highly valued service for families. But this 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.
“Two thirds of the school transport budget for councils in county areas is on school transport for SEND pupils, with over 30,000 students a year eligible for cars and taxis to school. Today’s report sets out how these figures will only rise, illustrating how unsustainable they are: by 2028 councils England’s counties will be spending over £1.1bn a year on SEND school transport alone.
“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.”
Modelling within the report predicts that the costs of providing SEND school transport will almost triple over a decade – from £397m in 2018/19 to £1.125bn in 2027/28. Moreover, the number of children eligible for free school transport has increasing 122% over the same period, from 58,000 to 129,000.
This increase is driven by the introduction of SEND legislation in 2014 and a subsequent explosion in the number of children receiving Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) which set out the support they need, including transport to school. The number of students on these plans has doubled from 105,000 eight years ago to 230,000 in 2023.
The report finds that councils have undertaken innovative and effective savings programmes in school transport, but they are swimming against a tide of rising demand and inflationary costs – wiping out substantial savings within months.
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The report sets out a series of recommendations to address cost pressures, including use of fleet vehicles, maximising the use of the public transport network, independent travel training, supporting inclusion and reshaping SEND school provision and sharper commissioning.
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