A change in culture is needed to stop what went wrong with home to school transport for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) from happening again, a new report says.
The report – to a special meeting of Brighton and Hove City Council’s Audit and Standards Committee on Friday (26 March) – follows three separate investigations into problems with the service which left dozens of children unable to get to school.
It includes the findings of an investigation by an independent barrister commissioned by council chief executive Geoff Raw, with the papers kept under wraps, as well as recommendations from a members’ policy panel and an external investigation by the Local Government Association.
A panel of three councillors, one from each political party, and the council’s “independent person” David Bradly scrutinised the barrister’s findings to make their own recommendations to the Audit and Standards Committee.
These recommendations include ensuring any major change to services that affect residents should go before a new board made up of senior council officials.
A change in culture is also proposed, led by the executive directors, with four recommendations:
- Service changes should not be rushed – even to meet challenging savings targets. The priority must always be good governance.
- Internal support services should be encouraged to escalate concerns about projects. Challenges should be welcomed as essential to ensure successful change.
- They should foster a culture in which officers are willing to recommend that projects are not proceeded with.
- Equalities implications should be central to consideration of service changes.
Problems occurred with home to school transport when the council rushed into using a “dynamic purchasing system” to save money on the £2.4 million service in 2019.
What followed was described as an “epic failure” by councillors.
Conservative councillors Lee Wares and Mary Mears pushed for an investigation which resulted in cost-cutting consultancy Edge Public Solutions walking away after the service collapsed and went £1.2 million over budget.
Councillors did not appear to be aware of the pending changes before the 2019 local elections, as revealed by Labour councillor Les Hamilton, the former chair of the Children, Young People and Skills Committee.
He said last year that the decision to award contracts using a “dynamic purchasing system” was made by officials under delegated powers.
The contract was worth just under the £500,000 limit that would have meant officials having to obtain sign-off from councillors.
An external investigation by the Local Government Association criticised the approach taken under the cost-cutting measures as “better suited to transporting stationery”. The LGA also criticised the lack of councillor involvement in the process.
But the public report going before the Audit and Standards Committee this week said that the Home to School Transport Members Policy Panel set up in light of the fiasco found “substantial improvements” to the service since September 2019.
It said that steps were already in place to make sure that urgent decisions were made by officials only when it was not possible to put them before a sub-committee or special committee of elected councillors.
The home to school transport service looks after about 400 of the most vulnerable children and young people in Brighton and Hove. Many of them have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
Initially, the council tried to blame local taxi firms for the “epic failings” of the service but it has since emerged that were it not for their efforts the problems would have been worse.
Under the council and consultants’ changes, children who required transport were not given it and missed school while others were carried in unsafe or inappropriate conditions. And, amid the chaos, vetting checks were not always carried out.
The new system also created problems at two schools in particular – Hill Park in Portslade and Downs View in Woodingdean – at the start and end of the school day.
Children missed lesson time and the schools’ budgets took a six-figure hit as they were forced to redeploy staff and employ marshals.
The special Audit and Standards Committee meeting is due to start at 4pm on Friday (26 March) and is scheduled to be webcast on the council’s website.
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