The Ombudsman's final decision:
Summary: Miss B complains the Council rejected her appeal requesting free home-to-school transport for her youngest daughter. The Ombudsman has found the Council was not at fault as it followed the statutory guidance and its own Policy before deciding Miss B’s daughter was not eligible for free home-to-school transport.
- The complainant, who I shall refer to as Miss B, complains the Council rejected her appeal requesting free home-to-school transport for her youngest daughter.
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)
- 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:
- Read Miss B’s complaint and discussed it with her.
- Considered the documents related to the complaint provided by the Council.
- Provided both parties with an opportunity to comment on the draft decision.
What I found
- The Education Act 1996 states that local authorities must make suitable travel arrangements that are considered necessary for ‘eligible children’ to be able to attend their ‘qualifying school’. This transport must be provided free of charge.
- The ‘qualifying school’ is the nearest school with places available that provides ‘education appropriate to the age, ability and aptitude of the child, and any special educational needs the child may have’. ‘Eligible children’ include those living outside ‘statutory walking distance’ of the school, which is two miles for children under eight years old.
- Section 508C of the Act provides local authorities with discretionary powers to go beyond their statutory duties and provide free transport for children who are not entitled to it. However, the statutory guidance on the matter states “it is very much for the individual local authority to decide whether and how to apply this discretion as they are best placed to determine local needs and circumstances”.
- The Council’s ‘Home to School Transport Policy’ says in cases “where a pupil attends a school which is not the nearest available school or designated school as a result of parental preference”, it will consider exercising its discretion and provide free transport if there are “exceptional circumstances”. It adds the following circumstances, on their own, would generally not be considered exceptional: “low income”; “lack of access to private transport”; “single parent families”; and “work/business commitments or domestic difficulties of parents/carers, including taking other children to school”.
- The Policy also states, “Parents/carers should therefore be aware when making a preference for a school which is not the nearest or designated school that they will remain responsible for transport to and from school should their family or financial circumstances change”.
- Miss B has four children, including two daughters, C and D aged seven and four, and a son, E aged 10. C and E attend School X, which is over 3 miles from their home address. Both children receive free home-to-school transport to get to and from School X.
- In October 2017, Miss B applied for a reception place at School X for her youngest daughter D. She did not list any other school as a preference on her application. D was subsequently awarded a place at School X.
- In mid-April 2018, Miss B applied to the Council for free home-to-school transport for D, in anticipation of her starting reception in September 2018. On the application, Miss B stated she had chosen School X as D’s brother and sister were already enrolled there.
- The Council wrote to Miss B three days later to inform her the application had been unsuccessful. It stated school transport was generally only available for those pupils in reception who attended their nearest available school, which should be more than two miles from their home address. In this case, it said Miss B had chosen for D to attend School X rather than School Y, which was the nearest school available. Therefore, it concluded D was not entitled to free transport.
- Miss B subsequently appealed the decision, reasoning she needed the free transport as she would not “be able to be in two places at once” if she had to ensure D got to school when C and E received transport. She also stated she wanted D to go to school with her brother and sister.
- In mid-May 2018, the Council wrote to Miss B to inform her the appeal had been refused. It stated School Y was D’s nearest school and had a place available when Miss B applied to School X. Therefore, it reiterated D was not entitled to free transport, although it did empathise with Miss B’s situation and highlighted she could pay for a concessionary rider seat for D if one was available.
- At the beginning of June 2018, Miss B submitted a stage two appeal to the Council. She said she would be unable to receive C and E at home at the end of the school day if she had to collect D. She also said D would not be attending school if she could not get free transport.
- At the beginning of July 2018, the Council’s Education Transport Appeals Panel considered the case. It was told School X is 3.12 miles from Miss B’s home and School Y is 0.96 miles away. It was also told C and E were entitled to free transport as School X was the nearest school with available places at the time of their applications for a school place.
- The Panel decided to refuse the appeal and the Council subsequently wrote to Miss B to notify her of the outcome. It noted the Panel had concluded Council Policy had been correctly applied in the case, and did not consider the circumstances reported by Miss B were exceptional and justified a change of decision. It also noted the Panel found no evidence to suggest that D’s needs could not be met at School Y, and considered School X to be a “choice of school”.
- Following the Panel’s decision, Miss B complained to the Ombudsman. In addition to the points she has already raised, she feels free transport should be provided as C and E are entitled and attend the same school. Additionally, she says the matter is making her feel low and she wants the Council to reconsider her appeal.
- I note at paragraph five of this statement that councils must provide free transport to enable ‘eligible children’ to attend their ‘qualifying school’. In this case, it is clear School X was chosen by Miss B when there was a place available for D at School Y, which is nearest to the family home. Therefore, the Council considered School X was not a ‘qualifying school’ and deemed that D was not eligible for free transport. This is in line with the statutory guidance.
- When Miss B appealed the Council considered whether there were exceptional circumstances in the case which meant transport should be provided. The basis for Miss B’s appeal was that she would be unable to receive C and E at home at the end of the school day if she had to collect D. Although it sympathised with her predicament, the Council found these circumstances were not exceptional. Its Policy states that when considered in isolation, “domestic difficulties of parents/carers, including taking other children to school” does not constitute exceptional circumstances. The Council therefore followed its Policy and for that reason I cannot find it was at fault.
- The Council was not at fault as it followed the statutory guidance and its own Policy before deciding Miss B’s daughter was not eligible for free home-to-school transport.
Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman