Brighton and Hove City Council has said sorry for the “distressing” school transport chaos and has promised to fix the problems within four weeks.
The council said: “We are committed to investigating – urgently and forensically – what has happened and how it has happened.
“We will do this in partnership with the city’s Parent Carers Council and other interested parties.
“We want to improve the situation for families who been affected as soon as possible.
“We will ensure that people who have been affected have their voices heard.”
In a briefing to councillors about the switch from just a few local firms to a “dynamic purchasing system”, involving multiple private companies, the council said: “We had been working for many months on new home to school transport arrangements starting in September 2019.
“By early August all school routes had been successfully awarded.
“However, a number of our contractors then withdrew at the last minute – very late August and even early September – from services they had agreed, in writing, to deliver as of the start of term on (Thursday) 5 September.
“It is to be expected that a small number of issues with contractors crop up at the beginning of an academic year.
“However, the scale of the contractor issues we are facing this year is unprecedented.
“We have also formalised arrangements at the point of delivery of the child to the school to clarify the responsibilities of both the schools and the transport providers.
“There had previously been slightly different arrangements at different schools and this had sometimes caused confusion.
“Schools were notified of the changes to arrangements in April.
“However, in some cases it has meant schools have had to take on ‘point of delivery’ duties that they had not previously covered.”
Despite recent extra government funding for “high needs” children, there was no suggestion in the council briefing that any of this money had been passed on to special schools to pay for the new “point of delivery” duties that they have been expected to take on.
The council said: “We understand that at school level the expectations around their duties at the point of delivery of the child has caused some operational issues.
“Children and young people who need home to school transport are among our most vulnerable residents.
“We provide home to school transport for 480 children and young people who attend schools and colleges. Of these, 30 have faced some disruption to their arrangements this term.”
Parents and others involved in two special schools said that the switch from dedicated local firms to a fragmented and unco-ordinated range of contractors has had considerable knock-on effects for almost all of their children.
Taxi escorts previously escorted children into school. Now school staff at Downs View and Hill Park special schools are escorting children into school. The process is taking much longer and children are losing hours of teaching time every week.
One member of staff said privately: “Imagine if this was happening at Varndean. It wouldn’t!
“There would be an outcry if students there lost valuable hours of learning time every week to bring pupils into school and into their classrooms.
“But apparently it’s ok here. This is an ‘equalities’ issue. Our children are being treated differently because they have extra needs.”
The council has also been criticised for a lack of communication about the changes. It said: “We acknowledge that the lack of certainty we have been able to offer a number of families about these arrangements has caused them distress.
“The last-minute nature of the transport arrangements we have arranged for them has also led to difficulties in terms of communicating with these families.
“We have apologised unreservedly for the difficulties they are facing.
“The council is confident that permanent arrangements will be in place within a maximum of four weeks.
“In the meantime, where new permanent arrangements are not yet in place, temporary transport support arrangements have been arranged.
“We’re working flat out to turn the situation around.
“Our children and young people have been able to get to school, but there has been disruption.
“A small number of children have not been collected on time or arrived at their destination at the required time.
“On a few occasions children were not collected by the operator in line with their instructions.
“The start of term can be a period of adjustment for all pupils but especially pupils with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities).
“There have been incidents that have occurred on route and delays in loading/unloading pupils has led to pupils becoming distressed.
“Some parents are refusing to accept the transport offered, believing it to be unsuitable for their child’s needs. Efforts are ongoing to reach acceptable resolutions.
“On a small number of occasions the first choice vehicle supplied by the operator has not been the right size to accommodate the pupil’s wheelchair.
“The last-minute changes that have had to be made has meant that the usual practice of vehicle crews introducing themselves to families has not been possible.
“Not all of these situations have occurred because of the council’s arrangements. Some information has not been received in a timely fashion. On occasion visits by the operators have not happened.
“Where short-term arrangements have been put in place information about students has not reached operators quickly enough.
“Council leader Nancy Platts and the deputy chair of our Children, Young People and Skills Committee, Councillor Kate Knight, are writing to all parents who have been affected to reassure them of our commitment to resolving all the current issues around home to school transport as quickly as possible.”
The council introduced the new arrangements to try to save money because – as a National Audit Office report found this week – the growing number of pupils with special needs has made provision more expensive.
A council “procurement board” was told that there were too few firms in Brighton and Hove willing to take on the work for there to be an effective market.
In part this is down to “consolidation” in response to the arrival locally of the American online taxi hailing business Uber.
So the board backed a switch from a single contractor to the new “dynamic purchasing system” to generate competition and bring down the price.
One councillor privately described this as the “Uber-isation” of home to school transport, using “disruption” of the market to drive down costs.
When the proposal went before a committee of senior councillors last autumn, they opted for a system operated by a traditional contractor, along the lines of the existing arrangements.
A report to the council’s Policy, Resources and Growth Committee explored the case for a “dynamic purchasing system” and said: “It requires additional administration from council staff which is not currently factored in to roles and responsibilities and initial soft market testing did not produce significant savings.”
But in the spring – as the council entered a period known as purdah before the elections – a senior council officer overrode this decision in favour of a “dynamic purchasing system”.
This involved bringing in consultants, Edge Public Solutions, who claim to be able to save councils money on home to school transport.
The previous home to school contract arrangements were estimated to be worth £2.45 million a year and were reported last October to be running £89,000 over budget.
The service ended the financial year in March overspent by £210,000 and an overspend of £346,000 was forecast for 2019-20.
The new arrangements were expected to be worth £3 million a year although consultants from Edge are understood to be earning a six-figure sum to try to find savings.
Council budget papers in February said: “Significant savings have been achieved in previous years in transport and overall cost compares well with other councils.
“A further small saving of £39,000 is planned for 2019-20 from an overall gross budget of £2.5 million to be achieved across the full range of work undertaken within the School Organisation Team.
“No negative impacts are anticipated as a result of the proposed savings.”
Last night two councillors said that they had been given the figures by the council but had been gagged despite the public interest in understanding the continuing fiasco.