Some of Brighton and Hove’s most vulnerable children are still being taken to school without vital safety information being shared with drivers and escorts.
Separately, Brighton and Hove City Council told a taxi firm to take some children to and from school using escorts who had not had criminal record checks.
Parents were afraid to speak up, the spiralling cost to taxpayers was being concealed and the failure to share information meant that transport chiefs were unsure whether drivers and escorts had the right training to deal with children’s medical and behavioural issues.
Wrangling over insurance cover was still also unresolved although the council said that it retained the “civil liability”.
One provider said: “Since September, we’ve been doing it on a wing and a prayer with some children.”
The issues emerged as a council panel sat in public for the first time this morning (Thursday 23 January) at the Brighthelm Centre.
The panel of six councillors heard that the hidden costs of new contracts totalled more than £140,000 a year on top of a forecast budget overspend that was recently estimated at £840,000.
Home to school transport had a £2.4 million a year budget but growing demand meant that it was overspending by up to £300,000, pushing the costs closer to £2.7 million.
The service now has an annual budget of £3 million a year but is forecast to be overspent by at least £700,000 after cost-cutting consultancy Edge Public Solutions took over running the service for the council.
The Parent Carers’ Council (PaCC) flagged up a range of concerns including the effect of the changes on the children, their families and schools, with safeguarding, training and budgets on their radar.
Downs View School head teacher Adrian Carver said that he had had to employ an extra member of staff to deal with the problems created by the new arrangements.
He had asked the council to help fund the new post but had not had even the courtesy of an acknowledgement.
Mr Carver also said that some pupils were still arriving late and leaving early as a result of the changes, missing out on their education.
The transport situation was the worst he had known it in all his years as a head teacher, he said, adding that the problems were predictable – and had been predicted.
The panel was told that cramming more children into bigger vehicles meant longer journeys to and from school for many children – as much as an hour and a half each way for some.
Concerns were raised about the ratio of escorts to children with learning disabilities including some with challenging behaviour.
Taxi boss Andy Cheesman said that one child had run out into the road and had almost been hit by a lorry.
Mr Cheesman said: “We were so worried that there would be incidents.”
“We found out that we had a child with epilepsy only four weeks ago who we’ve been carrying since September.”
It was important for taxi firms to have proper information about pupils’ needs, he said, so that they could ensure, for example, that the child’s driver and escort were trained to deal with an epileptic seizure.
It was also important so that they could ensure a safe space next to a child with epilepsy to minimise the risk of harm to the child and those around them in the event of a seizure.
Mr Cheesman said: “I’ve been looking after children with special educational needs all my working life. Adrian taught my brother 40 years ago
“My own son – this is why we do this – was born with autism. I’ve worked very closely with the schools and families for many years.
“This is the worst home to school service in 30 years. To still not to have the information and to be asking and asking and for people not to be answering emails is very frustrating.”
He said that the delays created by the new arrangements had meant drivers and escorts working longer hours than those contracted.
The unions wanted staff to be paid and the taxi firms, currently running on goodwill, wanted the council to cover the escalating costs.
Despite councillors voting in autumn 2018 against a proposal to bring in the new arrangements – using a “dynamic purchasing system” – education chiefs took advice from Edge and went ahead anyway.
An external inquiry has been set up to look at how this happened and what lessons need to be learnt.
Conservative councillor Lee Wares was concerned about the accuracy of briefings from the council saying that they were contradicted by evidence from those affected by the chaos.
And at the Brighthelm Centre this morning it emerged that the council had been offered free bespoke software used by City Cabs to make the transition smoother.
But instead the council had decided to pay Edge for software that was described as more suitable for delivering Amazon parcels rather than vulnerable children.
There was no update on the investigation by Mid Sussex District Council into the temporary suspension of some routes run by Haywards Heath Taxis.
But councillors were told by Green councillor Hannah Clare, who chaired the panel meeting, that this would probably be on the agenda when they met again at the end of February on a date to be agreed.
One parent, Pippa Hodge, who is also a governor at Downs View School, criticised the council for scapegoating parents when taxi firms said that they had not been given “pupil information sheets”.
She said: “I was contacted again recently by Dawn who started to ask me if my child has any difficulties with communication.
“To which I replied, if you look at my son’s information sheet which I sent in when requested, you’ll see that he has Down syndrome and autism and he is non-verbal.
“He has complex needs and challenging behaviour and all of this is detailed on his form, which I repeat every year, adding further information as his vulnerability and volatility increases.
“It’s clear that she didn’t have the form in front of her.
“I told Dawn that the reason I fill out the form in detail is so that I don’t have to then take a phone call when I’m trying to have just five minutes for myself and instead I’m in public, discussing my son’s vulnerabilities with an unknown person on the phone.
“We really do have enough on our plates. I repeatedly fill out the forms I’m asked to do, so it’s extremely insulting that someone from the local authority is scapegoating parents.
“Dawn said that quite a few parents had said the same thing and that they must be going to some other department at the council.
“Who sent the email that said (the lack of health and safety information) is due to parents not completing the forms? And what evidence did they base that on?”
The Parent Carers’ Council (PaCC) also touched on concerns about a proposed reduction in transport provision for 18 to 25-year-olds and some of the wider related issues as the council continues to grapple with the financial mess that it has made of the service.