DISABLED and special educational needs (SEND) pupils will be offered “travel training” to enable them to use public transport independently, as part of a plan to save about £200,000 a year. 

Darlington Borough Council leaders said an overhaul of its home to school transport policy was needed in the face of static Government funding for the statutory service and spiralling numbers of SEND passengers.

Despite significant opposition to its proposed SEND travel policy being raised in a consultation, the authority said its introduction would present life-changing opportunities for SEND pupils, providing independent travel skills which could be taken forward into adult life.

The authority said its home to school transport budget has been consistently overspent in recent years including an overspend of £413,000 last year.

Meanwhile. over the past three years, the number of SEND pupils needing transport has soared, rising from 153 to 177 at Beaumont Hill Academy and the number taken to to specialist schools outside the borough has doubled to 39.

In response, the council has launched the travel policy, which will also see SEND pupils given an annual review to determine how much support they receive.

The authority has warned there may be some “negative impacts” for some families who currently receive transport support, having it cut following an assessment of their needs.

The Northern Echo:

Councillor Cyndi Hughes

The authority’s children and young people’s portfolio holder Councillor Cyndi Hughes said while the annual reviews may create anxiety for some, it would ensure SEND pupils were getting the correct level of support.

She said she had been struck during a consultation over the proposals with young people by how much they were looking forward to being able to travel independently. 

She said: “At present many of them leave education and become adults without being able to manoeuvre on public transport, so there was a real appetite for travel training among the young ones. I thought ‘why didn’t we think of this before?’.”

Through external grant funding the council has recruited a travel trainer to support young people to access independent travel where families and carers consider this to be appropriate.

Cllr Hughes added: “I am looking at it as a community approach because clearly you can’t just put a young person on a bus who’s never done that before.

“So a group is being set up to monitor that, because when things go wrong it will bring the whole thing into disrepute. We need to have a system where we educate the public as well as the transport companies that everybody has a right to come and go.

“I see this as a positive change for young people to expand their knowledge and abilities to travel around the borough.”