The bill for providing taxis to take permanently excluded school pupils to alternative education facilities in Lancashire will hit £1.1m this year.
It follows a near doubling in the number of young people entitled to the door-to-door service over the past three years. As of this month, 289 secondary school pupils who have been excluded from mainstream education will be booked a taxi to get them to and from the county’s pupil referral units (PRUs).
The cost of the journeys – funded by Lancashire County Council – has increased by almost £300,000 in the last 12 months alone, the authority’s education scrutiny committee heard.
Last month, the county council approved a budget proposal to stop supplying taxis as a “first choice” option for excluded pupils – and consider offering them bus passes instead. Primary schoolchildren would be unaffected by the change.
Liberal Democrat committee member, John Potter, wanted to know how County Hall could be sure that it was not “being fleeced” by taxi operators.
“[We are spending] such a massive amount of money on taxis, [while] budgets are extremely tight and schools are struggling for funding,” County Coun Potter said.
But Oliver Starkey, the authority’s head of integrated transport, said taxi usage was arranged in the “most efficient” way possible.
“It’s not a case of just agreeing a charge. We will do it through a series of mini-competitions and [agree] whatever the cheapest option is,” he said.
The meeting also heard that the move to bus passes will be made only where the change is “reasonable” – depending on the nature of the journey being undertaken by individual pupils.
Labour committee member, Lorraine Beavers, said she welcomed a less “extreme” approach to the planned changes – but warned that some PRUs are located away from main bus routes.
“Putting these vulnerable young people in a taxi is the only way of getting them to where they need to be.
“They have already been disenfranchised by [being] excluded from school and they’re already feeling bad about themselves – so if you don’t provide this vital service to get them to school, [they won’t go],” County Coun Beavers said.
The budget proposal forecast a £400,000 cut in transport costs for PRU pupils – leaving an annual £700,000 available, based on the costs for the current year.
The council has committed to developing an “assessment procedure” to determine those excluded pupils for whom bus travel is a suitable option. Meanwhile, a budget report acknowledged the possibility of increased anti-social behaviour on board public buses as a result of the change.
The committee also heard a call to ensure taxis – when they are used – are more efficiently shared between pupils attending the same PRU.
Conservative chair of the committee, Christian Wakeford, recommended that the results of forthcoming discussions with headteachers at the county’s PRUs about transport issues should be reported back to members.
Last year, the county council provided school transport – mostly by bus – to 9,700 children in mainstream schools at a cost of £7.75m.