England’s largest councils today warn that spiralling school transport budgets for children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) are threatening their financial sustainability, as new analysis reveals costs are set to triple to £1.125bn over the course of a decade.
The report by Isos Partnership for the County Councils Network (CCN) and launched ahead of the CCN Annual Conference shows that a mounting tide of factors are contributing to this, such as yearly increases in numbers of eligible SEND pupils and parental expectations for individual travel arrangements.
As a result, taxis are now on par with minibuses as the most common form of council-funded school transport, with councils in county areas spending substantially more on these services as they do on Sure Start, Family Services and Youth Services combined.
Download the report here.
With the report projecting that demand – and costs – are only set to rise further over the next five years, councils warn their school transport budgets are getting increasingly out of control, with many overspending their school transport budgets this year.
Earlier this month, the CCN warned that these overspends were contributing to £4bn funding deficit over the next three years, with one in 10 councils unsure or not confident they could prevent insolvency this year – rising to four in 10 in 2024/25 and six in 10 by 2025/26.
Council leaders are calling on the government to provide an emergency injection of resources at next week’s Autumn Statement to prevent these spiralling costs threatening the financial sustainability of their authorities. In the medium term, the report recommends a range of reforms to home to school transport and SEND legislation, including the introduction of a national means-testing policy.
The report reveals:
- This year, spending by England’s 37 county and rural authorities on school transport is set to reach almost £1.1bn for the first time, with over two-thirds (£720m) dedicated to transporting an increasing number – 85,000 – of SEND pupils to school or college.
- Modelling within the report predicts that the costs of providing SEND school transport will almost triple over a decade – from £397m in 2018/19 to £1.125bn in 2027/28 – with the number of children eligible for free school transport increasing 122% over the same period, from 58,000 to 129,000.
- This increase is driven by the introduction of SEND legislation in 2014 and a subsequent explosion in the number of children receiving Education, Health and Care Plans (EHCPs) which set out the support they need, including transport to school. The number of students on these plans has doubled from 105,000 eight years ago to 230,000 in 2023.
- With many of these plans specifying that a child should attend a special school, and with the number of school places unable to keep up with this increase in demand, councils are required to transport tens of thousands of young people over long distances across large rural counties. Over the last five years the number travelling to special schools has increased 24%, with almost 50,000 pupils travelling to these in county areas every year.
- Increasingly frequent use of individual taxis, due to the complexity of children’s needs, parental expectations and demand for individual travel arrangements, means their use to transport children with SEND increased by 36% from 2019 to 2023. As a result, some 31,500 pupils are using cars and taxis, compared to 31,900 in minibuses. Just 2,200 SEN pupils are transported using traditional buses.
- Overall, spending on both mainstream and SEND school transport is expected to rise to £1.5bn by 2028 if there is no change in policy. Aside from SEND, the remainder of school transport expenditure is on transport for mainstream pupils who are eligible, depending on how far they live from their nearest school. Costs have remained largely stable over the last few years as councils have reduced services to the statutory minimum due to financial pressures elsewhere, including SEN transport.
The report finds that councils have undertaken innovative and effective savings programmes in school transport, but they are swimming against a tide of rising demand and inflationary costs. This means that substantial savings are wiped out within months.
The report sets out a series of recommendations to address cost pressures, including capital investment for councils to create more specialist school places, consideration of introducing a national means-testing policy, so that families above a specified income threshold are required to make a financial contribution to home to school transport, and to ensure that SEND tribunals do not rule on cases until there is full consideration of transport costs.
Cllr Roger Gough, Children’s Services Spokesperson for the County Councils Network, said:
“Councils work hard to ensure that every eligible child receives school transport, and we know this is a highly valued service for families. But this report shows the reality of a mounting tide of costs in SEND transport, exacerbated by long distances travelled in large rural areas, complex needs and parental expectations.
“Two thirds of the school transport budget for councils in county areas is on school transport for SEND pupils, with over 30,000 students a year eligible for cars and taxis to school. Today’s report sets out how these figures will only rise, illustrating how unsustainable they are: by 2028 councils England’s counties will be spending over £1.1bn a year on SEND school transport alone. Therefore, something has to give.
“A home to school transport duty for the 21st century needs to be fit to address 21st century challenges and must be financially, educationally and ecologically sustainable both for local government and for families. This report sets out some key recommendations to achieve this.
“However, reform takes time and the costs we are facing now are simply unsustainable and threaten council finances in the short term. That’s why we are calling on the government to provide an emergency injection of resources at next week’s Autumn Statement.”
Natalie Parish, Director of ISOS Partnership, added:
“This has been a fantastic opportunity for us at ISOS Partnership to continue our work understanding the challenges faced by local government on an issue that is having such a profound and immediate impact on expenditure.
“We are extremely grateful to members and officers in CCN authorities who have been so generous with their time and expertise in supporting this research.”