What if your children were autistic (autism is a lifelong neurological condition leading to ensuring developmental issues) and their learning needs were so great that they could not be educated in a mainstream setting, and were placed in a special school?
What if that school wasn’t local to you?
What if school transport was withdrawn for your autistic children, and you had to transport them to school yourself using a bus pass or personal transport budget?
What if you don’t have use of a car, and the “support” offered by the local authority only enabled you to utilise public transport?
What if that journey on public transport involved taking three different buses, at peak travel time when the buses are most crowded, a journey that would take nearly two hours?
What if you had to make the same two hour, three bus journey home again at the end of the school day?
What if your autistic child suffers with high levels of anxiety, sensory processing problems, is unable to communicate verbally, cannot tolerate crowded spaces such as buses, demonstrates aggressive or self harm behaviours, or is a serial absconder with no sense of risk or road safety.
What if transporting your children on a bus would put them, and potentially others, at risk?
What if your child has continence issues and wears incontinence pads, and there is nowhere on the bus route that has changing facilities for larger children and adults?
What if you also have a job that you somehow have to get to?
What if you have other children in a different school who also need to arrive at that school on time?
What if you had two autistic children, and had to take them on the bus on your own?
What if this just wasn’t feasible, and you have no idea how you are actually going to get your children to school in 6 weeks time when term starts?
Yet this is the reality faced today by my family and countless other families across Birmingham.
There are a significant number of autistic children in Birmingham whose education needs cannot be met in mainstream schools, and who are placed in special schools. These schools are usually not local to the children’s homes. Until this year, the local authority has provided door to door minibus transport to enable these children to travel to school safely.
However, due to a decision by the council to cut £2.8 million from the school transport budget, this door to door transport service is being denied to all new children who apply, and is being withdrawn from children who are passing through the years 6-7 (the transition from primary to secondary education), and from children who have a special needs sibling in the same special education setting. The wording of a recent managerial job post advertised by the Council suggests that these changes are the start of a plan to overhaul the model for transport services and to continue with wide scale withdrawal of the minibus service. The advert uses words like “independence” and inclusion”
Now, I’m all for supporting people with extra needs towards greater independence, and enabling them to develop skills such as using public transport, which will enhance their autonomy and integrate them into the wider community. I really hope that one day my children, who are aged 7 and 3, will be able to benefit from a properly supported individualised independence plan that helps them gradually learn to navigate the use of public transport at a pace which suits their understanding and abilities. But make no mistake, these changes are not part of a well thought out plan to promote independence amongst our children. This is a cost cutting exercise, and is the equivalent of taking someone who is recovering from a spinal injury and is learning to walk again, and in their very first physiotherapy session taking away their crutches and expecting them to run a marathon, with no assessment or consideration of their needs and abilities.
There has been no consultation on the impact of these changes with any of the key stakeholders ie the children and their parents, the local public transport companies and the special schools. The council took in excess of 8 weeks to process many transport applications, meaning that a lot of families did not receive notice about their transport offers until the very end of term. The two-stage appeals process (which is currently overwhelmed by appeal claims) takes 45 working days, which means that for many of us our children’s transport arrangements won’t be finalised until after the new school year has started in September.
I’m asking you to PLEASE share this information with friends, family and your local councillors and MP’s, especially if you’re in the Birmingham or West Midlands area, to make people aware of the impact that these budget cuts and operational decisions are having on some of the most vulnerable children in this city. We are trying so hard to get the council to reconsider these changes and to actually consult with the people who use their transport services. Our voice will be stronger with your support. Together we are louder. I’m including links to two blog posts written by a local woman whose children are also affected by the transport service changes. They sum up the reality of what those changes will mean for her children. Thanks for taking the time to read this.