Changes designed to make Hampshire County Council’s School Transport Policy more flexible and responsive to individual children’s needs have been given the seal of approval. Councillor Edward Heron, the County Council’s Cabinet Lead Member for Children’s Services, agreed the changes at his Decision Day on Friday, 19 January.

The changes are not part of a savings programme, and do not include any changes to the eligibility criteria for the service.

One of the key proposals agreed is the introduction of Personal Transport Budgets which could give greater choice to families with children whose needs cannot be met effectively in the local transport market. In these circumstances, the provision of a Personal Transport Budget could enable families to create more tailored transport arrangements better suited to their children’s needs.

Other changes include the development of an Independent Travel Training Offer to support a small number of children to travel independently as part of their preparations for adulthood. Training will only be offered where absolutely suitable, following a thorough assessment process, and in agreement with the parents or carers concerned.

The provision of Passenger Assistants (PAs), who accompany eligible children with additional needs on their school journeys, will now also be regularly reviewed to ensure the right support continues to be in the right place. This could benefit those children currently without a PA whose needs have now increased; and likewise, those with a PA who have become more independent and no longer require this additional level of support.

Commenting following his Decision Day, Councillor Heron said: “The School Transport Service is an incredibly important one for many families in Hampshire, including those with children who have special educational needs and disabilities. We firmly believe that each child’s individual needs should be central to the planning of their transport arrangements, and we know too that every child’s needs are very different. A blanket approach is no longer fit for purpose and so the changes I have approved today are focused on bringing greater flexibility, to ensure the service works as effectively as possible for children with additional needs, even as their needs change over time.”

Also at his Decision Day, Councillor Heron approved an annual increase, in line with inflation, in the parental financial contribution towards discretionary transport services, including the Post-16 Transport service for young people with special educational needs and disabilities who access further education or training.

As with most Local Authorities, the Post-16 Transport service requires a partial financial contribution from parents with the majority of the costs funded by the County Council. This contribution does not apply to families on low incomes or in exceptional circumstances and, in 2022/23, was waived for 76.7 per cent of families eligible for Post-16 Transport.

The agreed increase in the parental contribution will be applied annually in line with inflation from September 2024. It will also apply to other discretionary transport services for school age children such as Spare Capacity seating, which enables families with children who are not eligible for funded, statutory transport to pay for spare seats on transport contracted by the County Council where they are available. Again, this change is not part of a savings programme and there are no changes to the eligibility criteria for the Post-16 Transport service.

The increase in the parental contribution towards discretionary transport comes in response to significant ongoing pressures which have seen the County Council’s costs for School Transport and Post-16 Transport rise from £34 million in 2021/22, to over £50 million in 2022/23. These spiralling costs are being driven by inflation and exceptionally high demand, with 13,500 children and young people travelling on services every day, and further compounded by challenges in the current transport market, including driver shortages and a lack of transport operators. These pressures are entirely in line with those faced by Local Authorities nationally.

Commenting on these challenges, Councillor Heron added: “While we work exceptionally hard to minimise our costs and to achieve best value wherever possible, there is a wider national issue at play here and we are pressing the Government to recognise and address these challenges. As before, we will continue to fund the majority of the costs of our discretionary transport services, but the fact remains that we cannot absorb ongoing cost increases without impacting our other critical services for vulnerable children. As such, an annual increase in the partial parental contribution is simply unavoidable.

“I would reiterate that the annual contribution does not apply for families on low incomes, who receive certain benefits or whose children are eligible for free school meals. However, I know that even for those families who aren’t in this position, their budgets are in many cases already considerably stretched. Our transport team continues to exercise discretion when applying the annual charge, and I would urge any parents concerned about the increase to the charge from September to get in touch with the team so they can discuss their individual circumstances.”

The approved changes to the School Transport and Post-16 Transport Policy also include some smaller revisions to policy wording to reflect the latest Department for Education (DfE) statutory guidance. The policy changes follow two consultations which ran from Monday, 30 October to Wednesday, 6 December last year.

The updated transport policy will come into effect in February 2024, while the increase in the parental contribution towards discretionary transport services will apply from September 2024. Visit the County Council’s website for full details of the changes to the School Transport Policy and Post-16 Transport Policy.