This report provides the Committee with details of the information presented to Cabinet on 11 June 2019 for a decision on the action to be taken in relation to a Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) complaint regarding mainstream home to school transport.
The Head of Education introduced the report which provided details of a Local Government Ombudsman (LGO) complaint regarding mainstream home to school transport, the LGO’s finding, which was that the Council’s policy was not in line with statutory guidance and the Cabinet decision in response to the finding which was to approve the Council’s continued use and application of the current Education Travel Assistance Policy (the policy).
Members then raised a number of comments and questions, which included:
· Information available to families – A Member commented that information was provided to families about the policy and the implications of preferences made in admission applications, which was confirmed by officers.
· Additional information – Members asked for additional information in the form of a briefing note, relating to the exact point of disagreement between the LGO and the Council, which officers undertook to provide.
· Common policy across local authorities – in response to a question as to whether a common policy shared across all local authorities could be provided to reduce the risk of different interpretations, officers explained that there was no statutory code for school transport and local authorities were therefore able to localise their policies to meet the needs of local communities but did need to have regard to the statutory guidance. It was added that a large proportion of local authorities had transport policies which were identical to Medway’s in relation to determining the nearest qualifying school and those that did not were usually because of catchment areas, which did not exist in Medway.
· Reputational risk – concern was raised about the reputational risk to the Council if the LGO did publish a finding of maladministration. In response, officers explained that a similar LGO complaint on the same issue was made in 2015 and the LGO found no fault of the Council and had commented that the Council’s policy was in line with the statutory guidance. There had been no changes made since then. It was confirmed there was a reputational risk to the Council, which was why officers had been working hard to find a resolution with the LGO and officers had given an undertaking to consider cases where an applicant could demonstrate there had been no real prospect of the child gaining a place at their nearest qualifying school and transport was being approved in such cases. However, this had not been the case for the family related to the LGO complaint. It was also confirmed that the Council had sought Counsel advice on two occasions and had requested a view from the Department for Education, all of which supported the Council’s position. The Council had agreed to share its Counsel advice with the LGO if the LGO agreed to share the advice it had obtained, but this offer had not been accepted.
· Payment to the family – a Member questioned why the Council would not provide the cost of the bus pass for 2016/17. Officers explained that the family were not entitled to travel assistance in 2016/17 and therefore the Council was not willing to provide the cost of a bus pass for that year. However, an offer had been made to provide a gesture of goodwill payment, in addition to the cost of a bus pass for 2017/18 as a review of the route and the addition of a footpath into the GIS system had resulted in the school being attended becoming the child’s nearest qualifying school during that academic year. This offer was yet to be accepted by the LGO.
· Review of policy – It was suggested that the policy be reviewed from an equalities point of view and suggested areas of focus included the impact of separated families choosing to have a 50:50 parental split and also eligibility of travel assistance for children attending Pupil Referral Units on a part time basis. Officers indicated they would be reviewing the policy.
· Travel training – in response to a question about travel training provision for children with additional need, officers explained that a programme was being put in place and would be piloted from September for some eligible students at Bradfields School, with a view to expand the provision, where appropriate, across Medway.
· Better use of digital technology to highlight the policy – Members queried whether the online system for admission applications could be more interactive or used in a way that would highlight the implications of preferences on eligibility for travel assistance. Officers explained that the information requested via the admissions system was very prescriptive under the School Admissions Code but would work with colleagues in the Digital Team to explore ways in which information about the Education Travel Assistance Policy and eligibility could be highlighted further through the system.
The Committee noted the report.