PARENTS of disabled children in Chester made a heartfelt plea to councillors not to go ahead with plans to charge for school transport.
The highly controversial proposals, that could leave families in Chester about £880 out of pocket, were discussed at a special scrutiny committee.
Councillors heard evidence from parents who would be hit hard by the plans and recommended the decision to charge for school transport be overturned by the executive board today.
The controversial move was voted through by the council executive last month but Cllr David Armstrong, Labour’s spokesman on children’s services, called in the decision to the scrutiny committee over concerns it would stop vulnerable children attending school.
The plan, put forward in the budget consultation by children’s services portfolio holder, Cllr Mark Stocks, said discretionary payments for transporting disabled children to school had to be reduced.
This meant parents of disabled children over 16 and between 0-4 had to pay a contribution towards their child’s transport costs.
This would mean parents would have to pay hundreds of pounds towards the cost of their child’s transport per year.
The plans were met with anger from parents who say they are forced to send their children long distances to go to school because there is no provision for their children closer in the county.
At the meeting the committee heard from a number of parents who had to send their children long distances.
One, Michelle Jones, from Saughall, said she had to send her son, who is 17, to Greenbank School in Northwich as it was the only suitable place for him to go to school in the county.
She said she would have to use her son’s Disability Living Allowance, currently used to pay for a carer, trips out and respite care, to pay for the transport.
She added: “This should not be about money, it should be about what is right.”
The meeting also heard from chairman of governors of Dorin Park School in Upton, Angela Black, who called the plans “discriminatory”.
She said parents of children with special educational needs (SEN) did not have a choice where they sent their children to school.
She also told the meeting the plans may cost money.
“Special schools are not cheap,” she said. “The council have already put teachers in place and if children can only attend sporadically then it will cost the council money for no benefit.”
Cllr David Armstrong said Cllr Stocks had been put in an “unenviable” position by the budget he was given – despite a £2.5million increase next year – due to the large increase of children who had been taken into care by the council.
Cllr Armstrong said the directorate was not given enough money in the budget and called on the committee to recommend overturning the decision and for the council to find the money from another area such as marketing or consultation.
In response, Cllr Stocks said the changes were needed to save the council about £140,000 and said the council would still pay 87 per cent of transport costs for disabled children.
He said he had to work within the budget he had been set and despite the amount of money saved being small it would “all add up”.
Cllr Stocks also said out of the 150 families in the county with children over 16 in SEN education, only about 90 would be affected by the changes.
He said the council would work with families to make sure the impacts were minimised and there would be an appeals process if the family didn’t qualify for hardship payments to cover the costs of the transport.
He also said the council would explore the possibility of volunteers driving children to school which would reduce costs.
But visiting member, Labour leader Cllr Justin Madders, said the changes would not save as much as Cllr Stocks had predicted.
He said: “The hardship payments, appeals process, meetings like this and possible litigation which will come from this mean it will not save the council money.”
The committee agreed with Cllr Madders and said the options to reduce costs of the service hadn’t been explored fully.
They recommended the executive overturn its decision and said alternative proposals for transport should be looked into as soon as possible.
The committee also recommended students currently over 16 in education should keep the funding until they finish their course and asked the executive to contact central government to explore what will happen to the statutory payments for school transport when the school leaving age rises to 17 next year.
See full story in the Chester Leader