It is part of a plan by Lancashire County Council to overhaul the transport services on offer to them.
The authority is set to carry out a public consultation into a review of its home-to-school transport policy for SEND youngsters. Proposals include pick-up points from which groups of children could be collected and ferried to class – and plans to encourage walking or cycling, under appropriate supervision from a parent or carer.
Local authorities have to provide help to children with SEND who could not reasonably be expected to walk to school because of their specific needs or disabilities. This often involves the provision of taxis for individual pupils.
Lancashire already offers travel training, but a structured and strengthened service would be provided under the proposed new policy, which would see a shift in emphasis from transport to “travel assistance”.
The consultation has been approved by the authority’s cabinet, based on a draft document which “supports greater independence” in preparation for adulthood – and could include a free or subsidised travel pass for use by SEND pupils on public transport.
Cabinet member for education and skills Jayne Rear said she wanted to create a “relevant” travel service for the children who need it.
“Being an ex-teacher, it’s always great when young people turn up at school happy and ready to learn – and not having had a distressing journey getting there,” said County Cllr Rear, who was appointed to the Conservative cabinet last month.
A travel assistance grant could also be created, which would be provided to parents whose children were judged to be entitled to transport help, but who instead chose to take their children to school themselves – an option offered and already taken up by dozens of families during the pandemic.
However, Labour opposition group leader Azhar Ali said that the way the council was going about the review was “completely wrong”. He highlighted that the proposed changes aimed to save £200,000 and so risked penalising SEND children by creating a “generic” policy.
“Some families would be open to support and to go down [the route of independent travel], but it should be something that’s voluntary rather than mandatory. Each child is unique…and you can’t treat everybody as though they have got the same needs and..challenges.
“Young children with autism often need a very different routine and structure – and that can be provided with a…familiar taxi driver, rather than public transport,” County Cllr Ali added.
Deputy county council leader Alan Vincent said that he knew from family experience how “emotional” the subject could be – but stressed that nothing had been decided.
“The consultation will bring out all that sort of information that [County Cllr Ali] has just given us – and if people feel like that, obviously we need to know. We need a broad spectrum of people saying what they think is best for them,” he said.
Council leader Phillippa Williamson added that children with special needs “should be treated individually”, but added that independence is “very important for the children themselves, as well as their families”.
“We need to be in a position to make their lives as best as they can be – and that is what this is all about,” County Cllr Williamson said.
The draft policy notes that parents and carers would be responsible for their child’s safety in getting to and from any pick-up and set-down point – and also while they are waiting for the transport to collect them.
Assessments of whether a child is entitled to travel assistance are – and would continue to be – made on a case-by-case basis.