Council chiefs have promised to involve parents and carers as they try to prevent a repeat of the “epic failure” of the home to school transport service in Brighton and Hove.
The pledge comes as part of an action plan drawn up in response to an independent review of the problems that affected some of the area’s most vulnerable children last autumn.
Dozens of children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) were left without safe transport to and from school or without any transport at all.
The whole episode was described as an “epic failure” at a recent meeting of senior councillors.
The problems arose after Brighton and Hove City Council agreed to pay cost-cutting consultants up to £500,000 to try to save £300,000 a year from a £2.4 million annual budget.
The consultants, Edge Public Solutions, have since walked away with £180,000 after persuading officials to switch from a conventional contract framework to a controversial “dynamic purchasing system”.
Rather than saving money, the new system ended up pushing the cost of the service about £1 million over budget.
It also created chaos at the school gates of two special schools – Hill Park in Portslade and Downs View in Woodingdean.
Downs View, where vehicles were queuing back to Warren Road at times, hired a car park supervisor to manage traffic at the start and end of the school day.
And under the new system, escorts were barred from taking children into school and bringing them out at the end of the day.
This resulted in lost therapy and lesson time as teachers, teaching assistants and admin staff had to step in.
The independent review of the council’s home to school transport service described the new system, involving “e-auctions” of routes to and from school, as “rushed in”.
And an interviewee who spoke to the review team criticised the system, saying: “We would use an e-auction for stationery, but these are people, not pens.”
Now the council plans to work with Amaze and the Parent Carers’ Council (PaCC) as it works out how to rebuild trust and confidence in the council and the service.
The service will be better staffed and have a more realistic budget although the council is still expected to spend less on home to school transport than other comparable councils.
The action plan is to go before the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee which is due to hold a “virtual” meeting next Monday (15 June).
The council also intends to continue with the current contracts to keep as much continuity as possible although, as there are school leavers and joiners each year, some changes will be needed.
In the current school year, eight firms have been taking about 470 children and young people with complex needs and disabilities to and from school, operating 177 different routes.
The wage costs of escorts, also known as vehicle passenger assistants (VPAs), who travel to and from school with the children, will be met by the council for the time being.
A report to the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee said: “Their work is so critical to the operation of the home to school transport service and … the more casual and part-time nature of their work may make it more difficult for them to access government schemes to support workers.
“VPAs are a known to be a difficult workforce to recruit. They are mostly self-employed, with operators recruiting them to work for around two hours only per day, before and after school, usually on low wages.
“The hours are not attractive to many, and consequently, this work tends to be fitted around other jobs or to be taken by workers of retirement age.
“We have some information that several VPAs have left already to take on key worker posts over this period.”
The report said that escorts required “enhanced DBS” (Disclosure and Barring Service) checks – which include criminal record checks – and “these can take several weeks to come through”.
The report added: “It is essential for the sustainability of the service that the VPA workforce is protected and that enough time is allowed for workers to be recruited, checked, trained and introduced to families before school starts in September.”
The council said that its measures of success would include a satisfaction survey of parents and carers finding that at least 80 per cent have trust and confidence in the service.
The “virtual” meeting of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee is due to start at 4pm next Monday (15 June) and is scheduled to be webcast on the council website.