The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Ms B complained that the Council had removed her son C’s taxi to college without sufficient justification. I consider the Council failed to take adequate account of the impact of C’s disabilities on his ability to access the independent travel training programme. The Council has agreed to reconsider this point and in the meantime reinstate the taxi service.
- Ms B complains that the London Borough of Southwark (the Council) unreasonably removed her son’s transport to school (taxi) without taking into account his condition, his EHCP review, statutory guidance or the Council’s own policy on school transport.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
- We cannot question whether a council’s decision is right or wrong simply because the complainant disagrees with it. We must consider whether there was fault in the way the decision was reached. (Local Government Act 1974, section 34(3), as amended)
- If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)
How I considered this complaint
- I have considered the complaint and the documents provided by the complainant, made enquiries of the Council and considered the comments and documents the Council provided. I have written to the complainant and the Council with my draft decision and considered their comments.
What I found
- A child with special educational needs may have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. This sets out the child’s needs and what arrangements should be made to meet them. The Council is responsible for making sure that arrangements specified in the EHC plan are put in place.
Council’s Travel Assistance Policy
- The policy says that each application for assistance will be considered on its own merit. In most cases, young people are expected to progress towards more independent travel. The council will look for ways to facilitate this through the provision of Independent Travel Training (ITT) or by signposting elsewhere for available support and information.
- Independent Travel Training will help the young person to either walk, cycle or use public transport.
- Ms B’s son, C, who has autism, was due to start A level studies in September 2016 at a college in the borough, more than three miles from his house. Due to his condition C was unable to use public transport, because it caused him severe stress.
- The Council carried out an EHC needs assessment in March 2016. This stated that the school and parents would agree on intermediate targets for C each term to develop independent living skills. It said as an example that ITT could be aimed for over the next few terms and the targets would be evaluated each term.
- The EHC plan was finalised in October 2016. This said that C could not use public transport at all without an adult present and would need support with travel training. The plan said C becomes very anxious about new situations, socialising with peers and that he lacked confidence in social situations. In order to achieve the desired outcomes such as becoming an independent traveller, it said he required a stepped approach to facing real social experiences.
Travel assistance application
- Ms B applied for travel assistance in June 2016. The Council allowed his application. In the decision it said that C may be a good candidate for ITT but this could be considered after a term at the school. As part of the application process Ms B indicated that she would like C to learn to travel independently. The Council asked Ms B if she would like C to start the ITT process now, in time for September 2016. It said it was a step-by-step process, where a person learns to travel a specific route to and from college each day.
- Ms B said only an escort or taxi would be suitable at present. The Council provided a taxi to transport C to and from college every day but said it would review C’s suitability for ITT after one term.
- The Council wrote to Ms B in January 2017 arranging a visit for 10 February 2017 to meet Ms B and C at their home to discuss the ITT. The meeting took place and Ms B signed a form giving her consent for C to undertake an initial travel assessment.
- The assessment was due to take place in the week beginning 20 February 2017 once Ms B had obtained an oyster card for C. Ms B did not contact the Council. The Council wrote to Ms B at the beginning of April saying the trainer would meet C at his home on 18 April 2017 to start the assessment.
- Ms B replied on 12 April 2017 saying that C did not consent to the meeting or the training. He was terrified of public transport and wished the taxi service to continue. The Council replied saying it would continue the taxi until the end of the summer term but would not provide it from September 2017. It said when it first assessed C for transport it said it would consider ITT after a term when he had settled at school. It referred to his EHC plan, which said C will need support with travel training to become an independent traveller using different modes of transport.
Stage one appeal
- Ms B appealed against the Council ‘s decision in June 2017. She said C was not coping at college and had not settled. He had recently dropped out of two courses, had no social life and was terrified of social interaction of any kind. He had multiple phobias regarding public transport and without the taxi service he would be forced to drop out of college. The journey by public transport would take over an hour and involve two buses.
- The Council considered the appeal including information from C’s paediatrician in July 2015. It noted the doctor had considered measures for reducing C’s social isolation and said that C needs help with his independence skills to manage his day-to-day activities as well as his movement outside routine settings. The Council considered the ITT supported this medical recommendation.
- The Council explained in its decision letter that it had amended its process and now assessed individuals to see if they were suitable for the full ITT programme. It said it planned to assess C in October 2017 and the taxi service would continue until it completed the assessment.
Stage two appeal
- Ms B then submitted a second stage appeal. She disputed he had settled at college. She noted the recent EHCP review (dated 26 June 2017) clearly stated C had difficulties with navigating the college buildings, asking for assistance, and attending to his basic needs such as hunger and thirst. It recommended that
“Every effort should be made to ensure [C] can still attend college with the assisted travel scheme as all agreed that he is not equipped nor ready to travel independently.”
- She said any independent skills training could be taken gradually at some point in the future but the Council had ignored his severe anxiety: he becomes distressed at the thought of having to travel with a stranger on public transport and did not see how this could be overcome.
- The Council considered the evidence provided, including the EHC review. It recognised Ms B had made a number of points about C’s vulnerabilities and difficulties, but it concluded these issues could be considered as part of the suitability assessment. It said there was no compelling evidence to preclude C from being initially assessed with regard to his suitability for ITT and the assessment may well conclude that C was not suitable for the ITT. It refused the appeal. The decision referred to the doctor’s evidence from July 2015 (which was considered at stage one of the appeal process) but did not mention the recommendation in the recent EHC plan review.
Autumn term 2017
- The Council contacted Ms B on 25 September 2017 asking to arrange a home visit where the assessment process could be discussed. Ms B did not agree to the proposed dates so the Council offered a telephone meeting instead. It said C was booked on the first stage of the assessment process on 11 October 2017 and it would take two hours. An officer would pick up C from home and bring him back. Ms B did not respond.
- After further emails and unsuccessful attempts to arrange a meeting the Council sent Ms B the information about the ITT process. It said a trainer would meet C at college to introduce themselves to him. The trainer would then arrange to pick up C from home for a training session with other young people on a special training bus involving representatives from a number of other agencies. This would involve a 90-minute journey where C would be observed by the trainer. The Council said Ms B could accompany C on the bus training morning.
- It said if C did not agree to participate then the taxi service would end after the Christmas break.
- Ms B replied saying she had gone through the details of the session with C and he did not want to go. Ms B said C would be willing to meet the trainer to discuss the situation. This visit took place in 1 December 2017 but the trainer did not get to meet with C because the school said there was no parental consent. Ms B says C was told he was to be observed rather than have a discussion so he did not wish to participate.
- The Council withdrew the taxi service in January 2017 and Ms B complained to the Ombudsman. In March 2017 Ms B said that the college was now providing a taxi service.
- The decision that C should undergo the travel training was an issue for the Council to make, after taking into account all the relevant information. There was evidence from 2015/16 that C needed to learn some independent travel skills and I cannot find fault with the Council considering this option after a term at the college.
- However, following an initial meeting in February 2017, C evidently felt unable to participate in the training, which involved a three-hour session away from home on a bus with a group of other young people and adults unknown to C. Given the content of his EHC plan I think it would have been reasonable for the Council to have had further discussion with Ms B and C about how he could access the training rather than just threatening to withdraw the taxi service. This gave the impression that C was being difficult rather than feeling unable to attend due to his disability.
- The Council during the first stage of the appeal process referred to medical evidence from 2015 but did not refer to any of the more recent information in C’s EHC assessment (March 2016) or EHC plan (October 2016) regarding his anxiety at new social situations or the need for a gradual approach to solutions. The Council concluded that the ITT assessment process was reasonable because it would determine whether or not it was suitable for C. I appreciate the fact that the assessment process had been developed into a two-stage process by this point. But there was no consideration as to whether C could even access the assessment given the extent of his disabilities. This was fault
- The second stage appeal again referred to the medical evidence from July 2015 but none of the more recent information from the EHC plan including the review dated 27 June 2017. It said there was no compelling evidence as to why C should not be assessed for ITT. But it failed to mention why it rejected the conclusion of the recent EHC review which said he was not ready. This was fault.
- The situation between September and December 2017 was an unfortunate mixture of miscommunication and lack of engagement. The Council’s offer to meet first with Ms B (and hopefully C) would have been a chance to explore the difficulties C would have accessing the first stage of the assessment process. It was unhelpful that Ms B did not feel able to agree to this.
- But equally I think it was unreasonable of the Council to only offer a telephone conversation with Ms B before expecting C to attend the first stage of the assessment. Again no consideration has been given to the detail of his disabilities and the difficulties he would face in that scenario, even with Ms B present.
- At the end of November the Council made a reasonable offer for an officer to meet with C at college to discuss the assessment. This unfortunately appears to have fallen through due to some misinformation about the intention and content of the meeting. On the basis of the information provided I cannot reach a safe conclusion on who was at fault here but it seems that this would have been an ideal opportunity to progress the matter
- The failure of the Council to properly consider the impact of C’s disabilities at an earlier stage has contributed to the breakdown in trust between Ms B and the Council which in turn has led to an unhelpful lack of engagement by Ms B and C.
- I asked the Council to:
- reinstate the taxi service with immediate effect;
- within three weeks, arrange a meeting with C either at home or college to discuss with him the content and suitability of the ITT programme, including consideration of the most recent information in his EHC plan regarding the difficulties he experiences and information from people at college who know him best; and
- following the meeting, reach a reasoned decision as to whether it requires C to undergo the ITT programme and if it will put in place any additional measures to help him do so.
- I consider this is a reasonable and fair way of resolving the complaint and I have completed my investigation on this basis.
- Under the information sharing agreement between the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman and the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills (Ofsted), we will share this decision with Ofsted.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman