The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: The Council did not offer transport to school to Mr S’s child because the child was not attending the closest available school to his home address. There is no evidence of Council fault.
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mr S, says the Council failed to properly consider his case for school transport for his child, T.
- He asked the Ombudsman to look at the Council’s refusal.
The Ombudsman’s role and powers
- We investigate complaints of injustice caused by ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. I have used the word ‘fault’ to refer to these. 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 considered the information from Mr S and made enquiries of the Council and considered its response. I read the Council’s school transport policy and the ‘Home to School travel and transport’ statutory guidance (2014). We expect Councils to follow statutory guidance unless they have very good reasons not to do so. I sent Mr D and the Council a copy of my draft decision and took comments into account before I issued my decision.
What I found
- The complainant, whom I shall call Mr S, complains about the Council’s decision not to provide transport for his child, T, who is starting school in September 2018. The school T will attend is not the closest geographically but Mr S says it is the best school to meet his needs, and is named in his Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP).
- The Council must provide free transport for all pupils of compulsory school age (5-16) if their nearest suitable school is: beyond 2 miles (if below the age of 8); or beyond 3 miles (if aged between 8 and 16). The Council’s policy says, however, that it does not provide transport if a parent or guardian has ‘expressed a preference for (their) child to attend an alternative school rather than the nearest appropriate school’.
- There are 2 closer schools that T could attend. The council refused Mr S’s application for school transport on this basis. Mr S visited the 2 other schools and they expressed their concerns about T attending and whether they could meet needs. However, when these schools were approached formally they said they could accept T. The closest school is 2.4 miles away so Mr S says T would qualify for free transport on that basis. Mr S wanted the Council to consider a school which is slightly further away (7.5 miles), as he considered it to be the most appropriate school.
- Mr S said when he attended the appeal, a panel member asked if T came ‘under SEN’, which Mr S thought suggested the member did not understand why he was there and the importance of T attending the named school. Questions were also asked about a special school when T is in mainstream provision. Mr S says that his financial circumstances were raised in the summing up even though he had not mentioned them as part of his case.
Mr S’s case
- T’s EHCP says he will attend the school of parental preference, but will not receive school transport. This is because other schools can meet his needs.
- As closer schools had agreed, when asked formally, that they could meet T’s needs (because, with additional funding, they could arrange the training that would be necessary), the Council is not acting with fault to say there are nearer schools to Mr S’s home address that could meet T’s needs. Mr S did not feel confident about the nearer schools, when he visited, and was concerned that they had no experience of T’s conditions but this does not supersede the formal process.
- Mr S did not think the Council represented the transport costs accurately. The Council said the cost of providing a taxi to the school is £50 per day or £9,500 per year. It says T would also need support from a Passenger Assistant (PA) at an additional cost of £16 per day or £3,040 per year. The total cost per year, it says, would be £12,540.
- There are many factors in identifying what the costs are. However, Mr S was not applying for a place at T’s nearest school. Mr S argued that if T’s placement at the nearest school was unsuccessful, as he anticipated it might be, and his child would have to attend a special school. At that point, costs for transport as well as education would rise significantly. The Council would not, and could not be expected to, make decisions based on what ‘might’ happen.
- The Council confirmed it would not offer T transport to the school. The appeal panel concluded there were no relevant ‘exceptional circumstances’ that could be considered. For example, there was no claim of exceptional financial hardship. I accept it would have been best practice if Mr S had been told his financial circumstances might be mentioned but there is no fault in the Council raising it.
- It is not possible, until T has attended, to know whether the school of parental preference will continue to be able to meet his needs. I understand that Mr S was asked about the special school to confirm this was an option if the school T attended decided it could not continue to offer him a place. Although Mr S was unhappy that a panel member asked whether T had SEN, I am satisfied the panel was properly briefed and considered the information in front of it. The Council might wish to speak to members to alert them to the sensitivities of such cases.
- There is no evidence of Council fault in it failing to offer transport to T.
- There is no evidence of fault.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman