A mother’s passionate plea highlights Brighton and Hove’s continuing home to school transport problems
A mother made a passionate plea to council chiefs to put an end to the home to school transport problems affecting some of the most vulnerable children in Brighton and Hove.
Pippa Hodge, a mother of three from Hove, won applause at a packed meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council at Hove Town Hall yesterday (Thursday 24 October).
She led a deputation asking for a cross-party panel to be set up to look at what has gone wrong and quickly resolve the crisis. The deputation included parents, a head teacher and a chair of governors.
A formal motion at the meeting of the full council led to her heartfelt request being granted.
The council voted to set up a cross-party policy panel, with six members, two from each of the three political parties (Labour, Green and Conservative).
Pippa Hodge, one of whose children goes to Downs View special school, said: “To date, the revised transport provision has undermined 21 per cent of the total academic year for children with SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) at specialist and mainstream schools in and around Brighton.
“Home and work lives have been disrupted. School staff have been under enormous strain.
“Above all, it has led to a multitude of safeguarding incidents and yesterday two more were reported.
“Routes are still being changed despite public reassurances from senior officers that ‘all is now finally well’.
“We have asked for support from all parties and none. Sincere thanks, in order of appearance, to Councillors Wares, Mears, Atkinson, Hugh-Jones, Clare, Fishleigh and Allcock. I apologise if I’ve missed anyone?
“Worried families have written to you but not everyone feels able to do that.
“We have turned to PaCC (the Parent Carers’ Council), Amaze, schools and each other for support. This is how our campaign group emerged.
“PaCC hosted two ‘consultations’ and released an emergency position statement followed by a document of concerns. Dialogue continues.
“The current transport crisis is just one of many SEND platforms that PaCC and Amaze have been working overtime on and we ask that they be recompensed and adequately funded moving forward.
“For many children with SEND, sensory, cognitive, social and emotional challenges massively drain their ‘fight, flight or freeze’ nervous system, on top of complex co-occurring medical conditions.
“The journeys are the vital bookends to students’ learning day but children are being triggered into shutdown or over-arousal.
“When students are far off their ‘just right, calm and ready-to-learn zone’ this impacts whole class learning.
“Imagine Southern Rail introduced a similar overspend reduction drive: fewer, bigger sardine-can carriages and a much longer commute.
“You are buckled in beside Passenger 2 who is smacking their head on the window. Passenger 3 is blowing saliva bubbles and spit lands on your face. Passenger 4 sits right in your personal space. Passenger 5 lunges over and grabs your hair.
“Fifty-five minutes later you arrive but the train sits off platform for another 15 minutes of hell.
“You struggle at the office, you’re so shattered. As the working day ends, you realise with horror, that you face that same commute home.
“Tomorrow will be Day 37 of this commute for our children.
“In their (Tuesday) 17 September statement, Greens commented, ‘The changes, which included introducing a private consultant to manage the service, were widely criticised for putting cost-savings before the experience of parents and children.’
“Councillor Hugh-Jones subsequently wrote in The Argus: ‘The new contract, the “Dynamic Purchasing System”, may work for some services but I question whether it is necessarily appropriate for transporting SEND children with complex needs.’
“An Independent Review Team has just been announced, with three Labour councillors (Allcock, Knight and Wilkinson) and one Green councillor (Littman), overseen by a lead reviewer from another local authority and assisted by a Contact facilitator.
“Is this another critical decision in this fiasco that has been decided outside of any publicly accountable process?
“We ask council for a transparent and balanced cross-party scrutiny team, aided by PaCC and Contact.
“Many parent carers have lost faith in officers and fear reprisals. After the cavalier ‘wait and see if there is an assault or self-harm’ attitude of our own officers and (consultants) Edge, why would we trust or talk to any officer?
“SEND is in crisis nationally and locally. There are ‘really dire’, ‘pretty dire’ and ‘better than the others’ local authorities. Will the lead reviewer already be a DPS convert?
“The ‘rules of co-production and funding’ mean PaCC’s neutrality forbids a preference for a cross-party scrutiny proposed by any single party, which defaults PaCC to the officer-led review.
“But we as a collective of parents are free to voice our clear preference for the rigour of a cross-party scrutiny.
“This review must have clout. Awkward questions must be asked regardless of party lines in accordance with your councillor duty to uphold the ‘seven principles of public life’ – selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.
“Edge Public Solutions director Richard Hall wrote this in the Executive Magazine (published on Wednesday 21 February 2018, headlined): ‘When Running a Public Sector Organisation Is Like Playing a Late Night Game of Poker.
“‘Whether to stick or twist … to raise or fold. We’ve all been there. But senior officers entrusted with the future of our public funding have not only this dilemma when considering how to navigate their management boards to a secure position, but they arguably have “bystanders”, the politicians, who ironically cannot see the cards they have in their hand, breathing down their necks and telling them how to go about the game.’”
She added: “Councillors of all parties and none, do not to abrogate your elected guardianship duties. The game is up, no more gambling with our children’s safety and wellbeing.
“Please breathe down necks, pay close attention to every card that has been dealt, every hand played – and scrutinise.”
Labour councillor John Allcock, who became the chair of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee last month, said: “Thank you for your passionate and heartfelt deputation Pippa.
“Obviously, we have been in contact before today – in person and by email – but I am glad to have your direct input at this meeting, as I am sure all elected members are.
“I hope you are able to accept that there has been full recognition of the problems that some parents faced at the start of this term and I know that for some this is still ongoing.
“Arrangements certainly did not proceed as planned. This should not have happened and no one wants this to happen again.
“I want to repeat this unreserved apology today. But I also want reassure you and all parents and carers that we will not rest until this situation is completely resolved.
“I understand we urgently need to rebuild trust between the community and the local authority and therefore, as an administration, we believe it is important that a review is carried out – a review that will be fully independent of the council which will be asked to investigate all areas of the home to school transport function, including the initial decision-making process to change the arrangements.
“Lead reviewers have already been identified and a decision on this will be made by me in consultation with the chair of Audit and Standards Committee and PaCC.
“In addition, following a suggestion from PaCC, the review will be supported by a representative from Contact, a national charity working with the families of disabled children, who will also get in touch with families directly.
“Contact is not a local authority service and is not staffed by council officers.
“We are also considering other ways to enable greater levels of parent/carer oversight of the review.
“We want a level of scrutiny and challenge to make sure that we learn all there is to learn from this and so we can use that knowledge to make improvements.
“We know this won’t be comfortable but it needs to be done and done quickly so that any improvements can be implemented as soon as they are identified.
“The final draft of the terms of reference for the independent review have now been agreed which, again, incorporates valuable input from the Parent Carers’ Council as well as the suggestions of the chair of the Audit and Standards Committee. At our request these are drawn as widely as possible.
“I promise you that I want every aspect looked at – when I say no stone unturned I mean it.
“Representative groups – many of them here today – as well as individual families affected must and will have the opportunity to share their views and experiences with the reviewers as part of their work.
“I know that you – and others – are asking for an internal, cross-party member-led policy panel and we are more than happy to work with members to provide this additional layer of scrutiny.
“But our first priority has always been to resolve the problems our young people and their families have faced, with the scrutiny and review now running alongside.
“Having an independent outsider working on this as well will, we hope, encourage greater openness and transparency.
“Of course, we completely understand why other elected members want answers to questions and a degree of oversight themselves.
“So as well as encouraging councillors across the spectrum to engage with, and contribute to, the member-led panel and the independent review, I have agreed that there could be a short report – a progress update – on the independent review and the current situation with home to school transport brought to the next meeting of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee in November. Members will have an opportunity there to ask questions about the review.
“Once the independent review is completed as planned, it is anticipated that a further, final report will be brought to the January meeting of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee.
“The Committee system in Brighton and Hove is designed to give opportunities for councillors to both set policy at committees and also to scrutinise the work of the council.
“I expect and hope that councillors will want to ask questions about any recommendations coming from the review and also to be assured that actions are in place to address these recommendations.
“Future meetings of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee and reports from the policy panel will provide robust opportunities to scrutinise progress.
“By its definition, an independent review ensures that all areas of the council’s work can be explored as part of the review without any party-political influence getting in the way of the changes that I’m sure families in the city would want for the future.
“If the Children, Young People and Skills Committee or the policy panel continues to have concerns, then these can also be referred to a future meeting of full council.
“It is vital therefore that we learn from what went wrong and make changes for the future.”
Former council leader Mary Mears spoke for the Conservatives. Councillor Mears, one of the longest-serving members of the council, said: “We know there can be teething problems at the start of a new contract.
“In all my years as a councillor I have never experienced such a disorganised and potentially dangerous way of working as this contract has caused and the unnecessary stress this has put on our most vulnerable children and their families.
“At the (Thursday) 11 July Policy and Resources Committee meeting we raised many concerns with this new contract, not least that it had been let under delegated powers without members’ endorsement.
“We were so concerned at the comments coming from our officers to our questions that I raised this new contract as a corporate risk – only the second time I have done this in my political career.
“How seriously has this administration and the council taken this forward? I don’t believe that they have.
“The administration needs to remember that officers are there to advise you but the decisions are yours and you are accountable to the city.
“Clearly there has been no member oversight before this contract was let.
“Our motion calls for a cross-party member-led panel – not to stop the external review being organised by the administration but to feed into the process and to strengthen the findings and also the way forward.
“There is so much distrust and concern being raised by parents whose children rely on home to school transport that we believe this added process will make the external review far more open and transparent which frankly needs to happen because to date this contract has caused more upset than I have ever known in the past.”
Councillor Mears added that she visited Downs View School, in Woodingdean, on Wednesday (23 October). She said
- a driver had to be turned away because he was not allowed to pick up vulnerable children
- a driver and escort were found not to have the right insurance
- a driver arrived without his required badge
- an escort was found not have been trained
- a driver had subcontracted the pick-up to another driver who did not know whether his escort had been trained or had the required vetting checks (known as DBS checks)
Councillor Hannah Clare spoke for the Greens. She said: “I want to start by thanking the parents, carers and children who have come today to share their stories and experiences with the disruption to their transport this term.
“Myself and members of my group have been shocked by the stories you have told us here – and at visits to schools.
“Let me be clear – the changes to home to school transport this term have led to an unacceptable level of distress to our most vulnerable children and young people.
“What they have experienced falls foul of this council’s responsibilities. Solutions must be found now.
“On the external investigation – we have welcomed this and want to ensure that vital lessons of what went wrong and how we can prevent them in the future begin to be explored as soon as possible.
“On the panel – we know that those affected want to see real scrutiny from their local councillors and they want solutions to the ongoing chaos they are facing.
“We believe these things are separate and can happen concurrently.
“We believe cross-party working on finding solutions to be really valuable. This is what the panel will do.
“Ultimately what we all want is for the disruption to end and pupils to receive the support they need.
“Greens agree with you wholeheartedly that this is an equalities issue as much as anything else. We would like to see a new equalities impact assessment and will feed that into the review.
“We would like to know why offers from schools of training have not been taken up and make sure it happens.
“We want to know how we can hear from those who feel they cannot raise concerns as they fear they may lose the transport they have, despite it being totally unsuitable.
“The panel can look at this now, working with partners such as yourselves and PaCC and the investigation can look to making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
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