Birmingham Council Wants Nicholas, 4, To Get The Public Bus To School
A few miles from his home in south Birmingham, four-year-old Nicholas Bolton is due to start a special needs school for autistic children in September. His mum, Rosalind, and dad, Francis, not only love the school but knew he’d be safe getting there: funded by Birmingham city council, the school minibus has special seats, harnesses and trained guides.
But as an insight into what parents of disabled children are currently experiencing up and down the country, last month Rosalind was informed that Nicholas – who is non-verbal, incontinent, struggles to control his body and can’t understand instructions – would not be granted specialist transport to school. Instead, the council would assist with travel by offering a free bus pass.
“It took me a while to process it,” Rosalind admits. “I wasn’t sure they could actually be suggesting it.”
But they were. The council wanted Nicholas to use a regular bus: not only a standard school bus unsafe for disabled children but – for a little boy who becomes distressed near strangers – a public bus alongside commuters, shoppers and students. Because there’s no bus that goes directly to Nicholas’s school, he’d have to take two separate buses, changing midway. Morning and afternoon, an hour there and back in normal traffic. “That journey would be overwhelming agony for him,” Rosalind says.
It’s like the council saying they haven’t got the money so they’re going to stop collecting the rubbish
Talking to other parents, Rosalind quickly discovered that Nicholas wasn’t alone. Every other disabled child starting at his school this year was being refused specialist transport too. And the more she dug, she found this was happening all over Birmingham.
One friend with an autistic child at another school across the city has just been told the entire reception class won’t have specialist transport, Rosalind says. The council, she explains, are “trying to dress this up” to parents as a way to help their children be independent.
“We’d love them to go to the local school on their scooters and when they’re older get the bus to senior school with their mates. That is never going to happen, and the council knows it,” she says. “By ‘independent’, they mean independent of the council.”
In the current climate, independence for severely disabled children is a budget cut by another name. Travel Assist, the part of Birmingham city council that provides transport services, has been told it must find £2.8m, a local councillor informed parents, according to Rosalind. When approached for comment, Colin Diamond, director for education at Birmingham city council, tells me the council has received “significant grant cuts from central government and these have affected all parts of the council, including Travel Assist”.
“It’s like them saying they haven’t got the money so they’re going to stop collecting the rubbish,” Rosalind says.
The law states that a child with a disability that would prevent them walking to their nearest suitable school must get free transport help regardless of distance (non-disabled children must live more than three miles from their school to be eligible). But Contact a Family, a charity that supports families with disabled children, tells me some local authorities are now trying to cut corners to save money. They regularly hear from families whose child is clearly eligible for school transport but have been refused help.
The result is parents who are already exhausted, faced with shrinking services, left living in a logistical nightmare. Without safe transport for Nicholas, Rosalind, who works in utility regulation, would need to drive her son to school in the morning, get to the office, leave to collect Nicholas in the afternoon, and get his 18-month-old sister to and from childcare.
“My husband has epilepsy so he can’t drive,” she says. “I’ve worked out I’d be left with about four and half hours at work. I’d have to quit my job.”
Childminders or after-school clubs – typically untrained to look after disabled children – aren’t an option for families like Nicholas’s. There used to be a specialist after-school club at Nicholas’s school. “That funding’s been withdrawn now,” Rosalind says.
A few days after we last spoke, Rosalind emails with good news: following an official appeal to the council, Nicholas has been told he’s eligible for a place on the specialist minibus. Rosalind is relieved but hesitant. “I feel like it’s a battle we’re going to have every year,” she says. “And there’s all these other parents who are still going through this now.”
She tells me about a single mum at Nicholas’s school who’s already struggling with money but, without transport for her autistic child, would have to give up her one remaining job. Another friend with two autistic children was planning to get back into nursing part time, she says, but now doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to work again.
Diamond says the council will “always endeavour to ensure support for getting children to school is safe and cost effective, and enables children to be as independent as possible. Any parent or carer who feels the assistance provided is not appropriate is able to appeal.”
But with only a few weeks until the start of term, Rosalind worries other families won’t have time to appeal before their child needs to start school. “The council is seeing disabled children as an easy target,” she says. “It’s just horrible.”