School transport – no right to education if you can’t get there

This post was edited on 12 March 2015, including to clarify the definition of an ‘eligible’ child and the requirements of a post 16 transport policy statement. Links to the legislation have also been added.

School transport in general and transport for children with SEN in particular forms a massive part of Local Authority expenditure. I know of at least one Local Authority where expenditure on SEN transport exceeds the amount spent on SEN provision – by some way. So at this time of austerity it is unsurprising that Local Authorities are eyeing up their school transport budgets and seeking to bring them down. Unfortunately, too often this is being done without any proper understanding of the relevant statutory duties – the subject of this blog.

Compliance with the law on school transport is not helped by it being so blinking complicated. I have totted up at least four statutory provisions which might be relevant to the question of whether a child or young person receives help from their Local Authority to get to school. Each of these form part of the alphabet soup of sections found after section 508 of the Education Act 1996 – a soup created through lots of later amendments to that Act. The key statutory provisions (all in Part IX, Chapter II) follow. Although legislation.gov.uk has not yet updated all these sections of the 1996 Act, you can see the amended sections through the Act that introduced them, the Education and Inspections Act 2006 and the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009.

  1. Section 508B – this requires Local Authorities to secure ‘suitable home to school travel arrangements’ for ‘eligible’ children of compulsory school age (5-15, ie not 16 and 17 year olds – see 3. below). Importantly these arrangements must be provided free of charge – see sub-section (1). Any arrangements must be ‘suitable’, i.e. appropriate for the individual child taking account of any particular needs they have. Schedule 35B to the 1996 Act sets out who ‘eligible’ children are – importantly, paragraph 2 of this Schedule says that disabled children and children with SEN of compulsory school age who live within the walking distance (two or three miles depending on age) but ‘cannot reasonably be expected to walk to school’ are all ‘eligible’. Paragraph 3 makes children ‘eligible’ if they attend a school outside the walking distance, so long as it is the nearest suitable school. So in most cases (unless, for example, the parents have chosen to send their child to a school which is not the nearest suitable school) disabled children and children with SEN will have a right to free suitable school transport up to the age of 16 unless they can reasonably be expected to walk to a school close to home themselves. There is helpful statutory guidance on the school transport duties to ‘eligible’ children.
  2. What about children aged 5-15 who are not ‘eligible’? The Local Authority has a power to provide school transport for any child under section 508C (scroll down the link) of the 1996 Act. The Local Authority must at least think about exercising this power in every case and must exercise it in some cases – otherwise it is fettering its discretion. However, by virtue of it being a power it will be much harder to force a Local Authority to make transport arrangements under section 508C. Moreover unlike transport provided to ‘eligible’ children arrangements made under section 508C do not have to be made free of charge. Section 508C could also be used to obtain transport for children below compulsory school age, i.e. the under 5s, where this transport is necessary for them to access education.
  3. What about children aged 16 and 17? It seems to me there is a gap in the law here which is potentially discriminatory. 16 and (shortly) 17 year olds are now expected (indeed obliged) to participate in education or training. However the duty to provide school transport under section 508B applies only to children of ‘compulsory school age’. The definition of this term is found in section 8 of the 1996 Act – and it clearly says that this term covers only children aged 5-15. Children aged 16 and 17 are covered by section 509AA of the 1996 Act (warning – section not fully up to date with later amendments). This requires every Local Authority to publish a transport policy statement for ‘persons of sixth form age’. Importantly, this statement has to include ‘arrangements for facilitating the attendance [at schools or colleges] of disabled persons and persons with learning difficulties or disabilities’, see section 509AB (warning – section not fully up to date with later amendments). However, section 509AA does not itself create a duty or power to provide transport – it therefore seems to me that the statement it requires is dealing with circumstances when the Local Authority should exercise its section 509C powers in relation to these older children. In setting this policy, the Local Authority will need to have due regard to the need to advance equality of opportunity for disabled learners – as required by section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, the public sector equality duty (see further below). However this is not as good as being covered by the section 508B duty – not least because, as we have seen, ‘eligible’ children under that duty are entitled to suitable transport free of charge. The statutory guidance on post 16 transport is very helpful on the need for the transport policy statement to deal properly with the particular transport requirements of disabled learners.
  4. What about young adults, who are now within the remit of the SEN system by virtue of the reforms under Part 3 of the Children and Families Act 2014 (particularly those who have or will have EHC Plans)? Their transport needs should be met under section 508F of the 1996 Act, which requires Local Authorities to make ‘such arrangements for the provision of transport as they consider necessary’ for adult learners. So if it is ‘necessary’ for a young person over 18 to receive help with transport to get to school or college, then there is a duty on the Local Authority to provide this. Further, assistance under section 508F must also be provided free of charge – see sub-section (4).

So it is clear that the nature and extent of the duty to provide school transport depends not only on the child or young person’s needs but also on their age. As set out above, I’m troubled by this, particularly what seems to me to the less favourable treatment of young people aged 16-17, not just compared with younger children but also compared with those over 18. However in general it should be possible to use these provisions to obtain suitable transport for any child or young person who has a genuine need for help to get to school. Any transport policy being operated by a Local Authority which makes this impossible will be highly likely to be unlawful.

It is also important to remember that there can be a social care duty to arrange transport which helps a disabled child or young person access education. Unsurprisingly, this duty is found in section 2 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 – see further on the CSDPA here. In particular, section 2(1)(c) requires Local Authorities to provide ‘assistance to [a disabled person] in taking advantage of educational facilities available to him’. This duty arises where it is ‘necessary’ for a Local Authority to provide a service under the CSDPA to meet a person’s needs. As such, there will be no CSDPA duty if in fact the disabled child or adult is able to obtain transport to access education under the Education Act 1996 duties and powers described above. However if there is a gap in the 1996 Act scheme and a need for transport to education cannot or will not be met under that legislation, then the CSDPA duty operates as a safety net. From 1 April 2015 however the CSDPA is repealed in relation to those over 18 and entitlement to transport will then be an issue of eligibility under the Care Act 2014.

How about the case, common at present, where Local Authorities are attempting to tighten their eligibility criteria for school transport as part of the cuts? Obviously any new policy has to comply with the law above, but what about other relevant legal considerations? Firstly, it is virtually certain that any Local Authority attempting to change its transport policy will have to consult in advance with affected families, and do so properly – see the guidance from the Supreme Court on consultation. Secondly, all cuts decisions must be taken in accordance with the public sector equality duty in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010, which requires ‘due regard’ to be given to a series of specified needs. The most relevant need in such a case is likely to be the need to ‘advance equality of opportunity’ for disabled people compared with others (see section 149(1)(b)). It is still possible for a Local Authority to pay ‘due regard’ to this need while cutting an important service, but it must first have understood how many disabled people will be affected, analysed what the impact will be and considered any ways in which the impact could be mitigated or avoided (all of this comes from the extensive case law on the section 149 duty). This places a heavy burden on Local Authorities who are seeking to cut services which are valued by disabled people, and one which is all too often not properly discharged.

Families who are concerned about current transport policies or proposed cuts to services which may be unlawful should seek advice from a specialist solicitor as soon as possible.

Comments on this tricky legal area most welcome below.

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