Senior Northamptonshire councillor admits controversial SEN school transport plan not handled well

Cabinet member for children's services Cllr Fiona Baker admitted yesterday the situation has not been handled well and that she is extremely concerned.
Cabinet member for children's services Cllr Fiona Baker admitted yesterday the situation has not been handled well and that she is extremely concerned.

The councillor in charge of Northamptonshire children’s services has admitted a controversial plan to change the school transport arrangements for special needs children has not been handled well and says she is ‘very concerned about the issue’.

Parents whose children attend Northgate School and Beehive School in Northampton are angry after being told out of the blue last month that instead of being collected from home their children would have to walk to an as yet unannounced pick-up point.

They were told by the council, which will be bringing in the pilot scheme from November 4, that the scheme would be introduced to promote independence and reduce emissions.

At yesterday’s cabinet meeting Cllr Fiona Baker, who is responsible for children’s services, said the plan ‘did not set off well’ and has now pledged that each of the children affected will be individually assessed.

She said: “It is a situation that I agree from the children’s situation did not set off well in that the transport officers had a good plan, but unfortunately the consultation between us was not great.

“We are assessing that. We will be looking at each child individually and speaking to parents and head teachers.

“Those of you who know me, will know I will be very concerned about this issue. We are setting up meetings as we speak.”

The new measure had been implemented by the transport department of the council, which under policy guidelines did not have to consult parents about the change.

Cllr Jason Smithers, who has responsibility for transport, said yesterday the changes to home to school transport had saved the council £340,000 so far this financial year by rationalising routes and retendering contracts.

The Conservative-run authority is looking for savings right across its services as it is currently predicting a £4m overspend on its overall £417m budget this year.

It has not been made public how much the ‘pick-up point’ initiative would save the council.

Mother Susan Bannard, whose 15-year-old son Alfie attends Northgate School, said the authority had not responded to her emails.

She said: “We understand the council has to save money, but they have said this is about independence.

“My son wouldn’t be able to walk to a stop on his own as he is autistic and has epilepsy. We don’t even know where the drop-off points may be, so we have no way of preparing our children. The council is not recognising the upset this will cause and if my son gets too upset he may have a seizure.

“This has not been thought through at all.”

Speaking at the cabinet meeting parent Oliva Anderton asked the council to halt the move to consider it more fully.

She said: “I am seriously concerned around many different decisions being made by the transport department and would welcome a full investigation as to whether they are abiding by all relevant laws in relation to both transport and disability and implementing the current local policy in a lawful manner.”

Councillors Julie Davenport and Anjona Roy also spoke out against the pilot and criticised the lack of communication between the authority and parents. Removing the home pick-up at the start of the winter has also been criticised.

And Labour parliamentary candidate for Northampton North Sally Keeble, said the council should stop the plan.

She said: “If it’s just a pilot, why not do it when the children have had some training, when the afternoons are lighter and the weather is more likely to be better.

“This is a major change to the service. A policy must have been developed and the council should publish the policy so everyone can see and understand the plan.”