Preston boy 'missing almost an hour of school a week' after autistic brother is refused transport

A Preston dad says his autistic children have fallen victim to a “two-tier” education system in Lancashire after one of them was refused council transport to collect him from school – meaning his brother has to leave class 10 minutes early every day.

Monday, 27th September 2021, 6:04 pm

Garry Harper’s two sons both attended Acorns Primary School in the city until the end of last term – but, this month, 11-year-old Harley moved up to Sir Tom Finney Community High, three miles away.

As the two schools finish for the day within five minutes of each other, Garry says he has been left facing an impossible journey to collect both of his boys on time.

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Garry Harper with his two sons - nine-year-old Hendrix (left) and 11-year-old Harley (image: Neil Cross)

Anticipating the problem, he applied to Lancashire County Council for Harley to be given a place on board a minibus for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), which Garry says passes close to his front door on its current route to drop off another child living nearby.

However, the authority refused the request because its SEND school transport policy means that it cannot take into account the needs of siblings attending other schools when assessing whether an individual child should receive travel support.

Garry says that he had asked for transport only for Harley, because his nine-year-old brother Hendrix has more challenging needs – and he wanted to be able to continue to collect his younger son himself.

County Hall concluded that Harley was capable of walking the approximate two-mile distance home from Sir Tom Finney High – but Garry says his son would still require supervision to do so safely, meaning the family’s transport problem would be unresolved.

“In the afternoon, I pick Hendrix up first, because he would struggle with a break in his routine. If all his classmates were let out and he had to wait, he would suffer a meltdown.

“I’ve [then] got five minutes to make a 15-minute journey through numerous sets of traffic lights – and I simply cannot make it safely in that time.

“That means Harley has been kicking about for 15 or 20 minutes after school when he should be coming home. He can just about cope with it, but was still struggling knowing that he was not allowed out with his peers – he just waited in class with the teacher,” Garry explains.

In an attempt to do the best for both his sons, he has agreed with Acorns Primary that he can collect Hendrix ten minutes before the end of school – and so still meet Harley at his school gates more or less on time.

Garry says that the private arrangement with Hendrix’s school has effectively been authorised by the county council, with the authority confirming in writing that it would be content for him to miss part of the school day.

“What they’re doing is creating a two-tier approach to education. If my son was neurotypical, they would not let him be late every day or picked up early – they would simply expect him to be on time.

“If I’d made a unilateral decision and the school were not to approve that, I’d be fined. But of course [the arrangement] still means my son misses out on ten minutes of education every day,” says Garry, adding that both his sons’ schools have been “fantastic” in their attempts to help him.

The family does not face the same problem during the morning school run, because a breakfast club provides Garry with more of a time buffer for the journey between schools.

Legislation means that local authorities are obliged to provide transport for SEND children who live within the maximum walking distance to their nearest qualifying school – two miles for under eight-year-olds and three miles for those aged eight and over – if their need or disability means that it would be unreasonable to expect them to make the journey on foot.

However, Gary says that Lancashire County Council’s assessment of Harley’s ability was flawed - and has alighted on a comment in his Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP) that his maturity is growing.

“They have have cherry-picked the words that they need to cherry-pick in order to deny him [transport].

“He can now carry out simple tasks, such as taking the register back to reception, but he can’t cross a street on his own – he’d get mown down, because he doesn’t recognise danger. They have done no investigation themselves [of his ability].

“My wife and I do not claim for things we don’t need. My wife used to cover the length and breadth of Preston with the children in a buggy, taking them to various appointments, because I had the only car and I was out working.

“Hendrix became too big for my wife to deal with, so I gave up my career so that I could become the person at home looking after the children – and now I’m supporting her while she goes out and works.”

The county council’s policy means that it also does not consider parental work commitments when assessing SEND transport applications.

Garry is appealing the decision to refuse transport for Harley – but is also angry that that hearing was pushed back from earlier this month until October simply because he submitted additional evidence from Hendrix’s teacher as soon as he was able to obtain it from her at the start of term.

A spokesperson for Lancashire County Council told the Post: “We are assessing this application and the change of circumstances in line with our policy and will be in touch with Mr. Harper shortly.”

Garry added: “I’m asking for nothing more than parents of neurotypical children – which is an education for my kids. I don’t think that’s too much especially in light of all the tax rises we are about to see.

“I do not feel that simply because my child is disabled, I should have to pull him out of school ten minutes early every day. That, for me, is straight-up discrimination.”

SCHOOL RUN SUPPORT

Children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are to be offered so-called “travel training” to help them get to and from school independently.

It forms part of a new Lancashire County Council policy dictating home-to-school transport arrangements for SEND pupils.

Although the training service has long been offered by the authority, a review undertaken in 2019 suggested that it be given “greater emphasis”.

It will now be offered “free of charge to all children where appropriate…based on the needs of each child and their travel requirements”. They could then be given a free or subsidised travel pass for their journey.

As the Post revealed earlier this month, the refreshed policy attracted criticism from some families who claimed that a consultation into the proposal over the summer was poorly promoted and attracted just 24 responses.

The authority has since stressed that there will be no change to existing transport plans for individual children as a result of the revisions, which will come into effect from September 2022. However, “rigorous periodic reviews” will be carried out of pupils’ transport needs to assess whether they are still being met and if their circumstances have changed.

Mileage payments on offer for parents or carers who choose to take their child to school themselves will also be increased after that option became more popular amongst families during the pandemic.

County Hall says that applications for transport to and from school are judged on a case-by-case basis, taking into account:

***the age and maturity of the child;

***their ability and aptitude;

***their special educational needs or disabilities;

*** the length of the journey;

***whether the child is physically able to walk the distance from home to school and/or an agreed pick-up and drop-off point;

***whether the child needs to be accompanied and whether it is possible for them to be accompanied.

However, the authority says that its assessment will be based solely on the needs of the individual child for whom transport is being requested and so will not take into account the work commitments of parents or travel by siblings to other schools.

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