Parents and carers of children with special education needs and disabilities (SEND) were given a full apology for the distress caused by the home to school transport chaos.
Since the start of the new term, children attending some mainstream schools and two special schools – Hill Park and Downs View – have faced a range of transport problems.
There are still four routes where confirmation of the transport provider is still awaited, affecting 25 pupils who were said to have temporary arrangements in place.
Of the 127 routes to school, the operators of 14 routes withdrew their services at or just before the start of term, affecting 62 children.
The new chair of Brighton and Hove City Council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, Councillor John Allcock, started his first meeting by offering a “direct and unreserved” apology to parents and carers.
The Labour councillor said: “I want to make a direct and unreserved apology on behalf on the administration for the distress, anxiety and stress that has been caused to the children, young people and families as a direct consequence of the change to home to school transport arrangements.”
He said that council officers would telephone all those affected to provide an update on their situation within the next 24 hours.
Parents and carers will also receive an individual letter with an update and detailing how any outstanding issues will be resolved.
And a meeting is to be arranged with the Parent Carers Council (PaCC) to discuss numerous concerns.
Councillor Allcock said that officers would also contact those transport providers who pulled out of their contracts without giving the council the 30 days’ notice that they had agreed, leaving children stranded.
PaCC has already set out a dozen urgent safety issues, including a failure to address children’s medical needs, as part of new contract arrangements.
Councillor Allcock said: “We must to do everything we can to ensure not only that nothing like this happens again but that we learn from what has happened.”
He told the committee that the council’s executive director for families, children and learning Pinaki Ghoshal was commissioning an independent review, led by another local authority, into what went wrong.
Mr Ghoshal said that he wanted answers as to why contractors had handed back some of their transport routes and kept others.
Councillor Allcock said: “I want to give this assurance on behalf of the administration that absolutely no stone will be left unturned and we will be inviting all involved – parents, schools, governors, parent associations, officers and suppliers – to contribute to that report.
“This committee was already scheduled to receive a report in January 2020 to look at the new arrangements and this will now also include the learning from the review.”
Councillors debated the problem of home to school transport in response to an open letter from Conservative councillors Mary Mears and Lee Wares.
They listed 28 issues relating to the new system in their letter to the committee and the council’s chief executive Geoff Raw.
These included inadequate health and safety assessments, lack of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks – formerly known as criminal record checks – and drivers not knowing or having training for children’s medical conditions.
Councillor Mears told the committee that the cost to schools in terms of 32,000 lost teaching hours would come to £840,000 over two years due because teaching staff now had to escort children from taxis and minibuses into school.
Yet the savings from the new arrangements, using a “dynamic purchasing system” to generate competition and bring down the price, was budgeted to come to £290,000 over two years.
Councillor Mears said: “I implore councillors to go to the schools and talk to the drivers and escorts, speak to the school staff and above all speak to the families involved.
“We are dealing with individuals who have protected characteristics, we have individuals who literally cannot speak for themselves.
“We are responsible for their mental and physical wellbeing, their safeguarding and education. They expect and are entitled to absolute equality.”
Parent governor representative Amanda Mortensen spoke not just as a member of the committee but as a parent carer of her 18-year-old daughter who is disabled and has daily life-threatening seizures.
She said that education was not a luxury for her daughter or any other young person and said that if her three other children who are not disabled turned up to school or college half an hour late, there would be “uproar”.
Mrs Mortensen said: “It has been extraordinarily stressful for families across the city with issues around safety and even the provision of transport at all for some families.
“These are our most vulnerable residents and they deserve better from us.
“We have a statutory duty to provide transport that is fit for purpose. We are not asking for a luxury but for a right.”
Mrs Mortensen told the committee that transport should be the easiest part of the day but when it went wrong, the delicate balance of her life falls apart.
She added: “We can stand and shout and tell you how awful it is but we know you are aware of this.
“What is important is what happens now. It is a great worry to me and colleagues at the Parent Carer Council and Downs View that teams are not talking to each other.
“We need to learn lessons from this debacle and move forward together in partnership.”
Mrs Mortensen said that one of the key problems was schools having to bring children into the buildings rather than – as previously – the drivers or escorts.
Richard Barker, the council’s head of schools organisation, said thatdrivers and escorts could not escort children into their schools as it would require extra insurance which would have to be paid for.
He said that head teachers were told about this before the end of the past school year.
Green councillor Hannah Clare said that Councillor Allcock was the fifth chair of the committee since 2015 and the fourth since the start of this year.
She said: “The ‘dynamic purchasing system’ used to procure contracts is the marketisation of vulnerable children’s school transport contracts which has created a capitalist nightmare of providers going for the lowest bid and then withdrawing when it is not convenient or cost-effective for them.
“This has been overseen by a so-called socialist council.
“It should be noted you are now the fifth Labour chair of this committee since May 2015, although four if you count the one that has left the Labour Party for the Brexit Party.
“I feel that the lack of consistent oversight and stewardship of this committee seems to be doing its damage. Will the city now have a steady steer?”
Councillor Allcock said that he had no plans to quit.
Conservative councillor Dee Simson said that it was clear from the start that there were going to be problems with transport for children at special schools.
Councillor Simson, whose daughter works at Hill Park, said that staff were extremely concerned that they were being “let down” by the council.
Her fellow Conservative Vanessa Brown backed Councillor Simson’s request for a cross-party scrutiny committee to review the fiasco.
Councillor Brown said that the changes to school transport had not come to the committee but had been decided by the council’s Policy, Resources and Growth Committee.
She criticised the secrecy over the fees paid to cost-cutting consultants, Edge Public Solutions.
And she said: “Decisions seem to bypass this committee and perhaps that might explain why some of the problems occurred.”