Failings in the home to school transport service for hundreds of the most vulnerable children in Brighton and Hove show that lessons must be learned, according to an official report.
The report said that changes to the school transport arrangements for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) had not been well managed.
And an unsuitable method of procuring contracts for the service – known as a “dynamic purchasing system” – had been rushed in even though councillors had voted for the existing method.
The council was also criticised for poor communication and not sharing information openly.
Since the crisis at the start of autumn term last year, the service had improved markedly, under a great deal of scrutiny by members of Brighton and Hove City Council.
The latest report is by the Home to School Transport Policy Panel – set up just over a year ago – which looked into continuing problems with the service.
It follows an external review as well as a report by a specialist barrister, as yet unpublished, into serious claims about a contractual aspect of the saga.
The policy panel’s report is due to be presented to the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee at a “virtual” meeting next Monday (9 November).
Some of the lessons to be learned apply at a council-wide level, notably in relation to commissioning services and the use of urgency powers by officials.
This is particularly pertinent during the current coronavirus pandemic when it has been deemed necessary at times for officers to take big decisions quickly without going through the usual democratic processes.
The policy panel said that it heard “concerning testimony” on the “substantial negative impact on families” from August last year and well into the autumn term.
At one panel session taxi firm boss, Andy Cheesman, said that his drivers had to operate “on a wing and a prayer” as they did not have vital medical details about their vulnerable passengers.
Communication also came under fire in the report, which highlighted difficulties in obtaining information.
A “significant” number of documents supplied to both the panel and a team of experts from the Local Government Association (LGA) for an independent review were obtained through “freedom of information” (FoI) requests.
The report said: “The panel recognises that in some instances using FoI is appropriate when information might be subject to confidentiality clauses and conditions and in this case enabled some further information to be placed within the public domain.
“However, the panel does feel it is inappropriate for councillors to feel they have resort to these measures and was concerned about the amount of time it can take for officers to respond to some requests.”
Early calls by Conservative councillors Mary Mears and Lee Wares to include home to school transport on the council’s “corporate risk register” were initially refused.
But the service was included in the register in March after a recommendation from the LGA in its independent report.
The LGA report said: “Council officers need to ensure robust change management by adding significant projects to the relevant risk registers and to take swifter action in future when requests are made for additions to risk registers by councillors.”
The home to school transport service looks after more than 400 of the most vulnerable children and young people in Brighton and Hove.
The service suffered what was described by one councillor as an “epic failure”, leaving children without safe and appropriate transport – or any transport at all in some cases.
Lessons were disrupted and missed and teachers were diverted from their classrooms to become traffic marshals.
Key vetting checks were not carried out, taxis and minibuses queued at the gates of two special schools and children were left in distress.
Since then the small home to school transport team has been expanded and now works more closely with the Parent Carers’ Council (PaCC) to ensure children’s needs are paramount.
PaCC said: “It will take time for PaCC and the broader community to forget the trauma and lost learning for many children and young people when they returned to school and college in September 2019.
“Parent carers worried about their children’s safety, the risks to employment and care for siblings.
“The combined recommendations of the independent review alongside enhanced councillor scrutiny held by members on the Home to School Transport Policy Panel has led to the much-needed focus on co-production of an action plan to create needed service improvements.”
A survey was sent out to 411 parents and carers in September and, of the 57 responses, 91 per cent were at least satisfactory – and of these, 79 per cent said the service was good.
A progress report is due before the Children, Young People and Skills Committee next spring.
The service overspent by £1.12 million, although £339,000 of this was related to coronavirus-related measures. The budget was increased by £1 million in February.
A panel of three councillors and an independent appointee from the council’s Audit and Standards Committee is currently looking into serious contractual concerns.
The Children, Young People and Skills Committee is due to meet at 4pm on Monday (9 November). The meeting is scheduled to be webcast on the council’s website.