Councils call for reform of SEND school transport services, as costs double for local authorities in county areas over the last five years

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2024 | 27 March 2024

Councils have called on the next government to reform the special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) school transport system, with new data revealing costs have doubled to £800m for local authorities in county areas over the last five years.

The County Councils Network (CCN) argues that unless the system is reformed and targeted on those that need it the most, it will threaten the financial viability of councils.  Analysis of data compiled by the BBC, released today, shows that county authorities are spending an average of £9,800 per year on each child receiving SEND school transport.

According to the BBC data costs of SEND school transport have dramatically increased from £727m in 2019 to £1.4bn in 2024 nationally, due to an explosion in demand and rising costs.

The councils in county and rural areas that are members of the CCN have seen the most dramatic increase in England, with costs doubling from £387m in 2018/19 to £790m in 2023/24.

A report produced by the CCN last November found this increase was largely driven by an increase in pupils eligible for Education, Health and Care Plans. These set out the level of support individuals are eligible to receive, including transport to school. The number of students on these plans has more than doubled nationally from 240,000 in 2015 to 517,000 in 2023.

That CCN analysis also found that increasing use of individual taxis due to complexity of need, a lack of sufficient special school places, and parental expectations have contributed to both a rise in demand and cost.

The BBC data, which was sourced via both Freedom of Information requests and use of government data for individual councils, reinforces these trends.

It finds that the average council in England was now transporting 1,300 SEND pupils in 2023/24, up from 911 in 2018/19: a 43% increase. The average cost per SEND pupil using transport has also increased 32%: from £6,280 to £8,299.

However, these increases are more acute in county areas. County and rural councils transport double the amount of SEND pupils on average (2,458), compared to the rest of the country, a 45% increase in 2018/19’s average of 1,694 pupils per county and rural council.

The costs per pupil travelling in those areas have also rose more sharply, from £6,792 in 2018/19 to £9,750 this year: a 44% increase.

Previous analysis by CCN revealed that council expenditure on SEND travel is projected to rise even further. Costs could rise nationally by 2027/28 to £2.2bn, with county areas responsible for £1.1bn of that figure. The BBC data confirms that these projections are on course to be realised without significant changes in national policy and to the system.

In the face of this, the CCN says that unless the next government provides a substantial injection of funding, they must set out comprehensive reform to the system. Consideration should be given to the introduction of a national means-testing policy, so that families above a specified income threshold – set locally but up to a national ceiling – are required to make a financial contribution to home to school transport.

The next government should ensure there is sufficiency of special school places in local areas, with the number created in the last few years failing to keep up with demand. This leaves some pupils having to travel dozens of miles each day, particularly in large rural and county areas.

In tandem with this, mainstream schools should be assisted in accommodating more SEND pupils, by ensuring they have the necessary support and conditions to be taught in such settings.

With many individual SEND cases reaching tribunals, the CCN recommends that the tribunal system must be reform to ensure cases are not ruled on until there is full consideration of transport costs.

Cllr Tim Oliver, Chairman of the County Councils Network, said:

“Councils understand how vital and transformative school transport services are to thousands of families across the country, and they do their utmost to ensure every eligible child receives a good level of service.

“But the system is not working for parents and local authorities alike, with children travelling hundreds of miles every year and costs doubling for county authorities since 2018. Something has to give to ensure it does not threaten the financial viability of councils and we are able to safeguard these vital services. Therefore, unless there is substantial injection of funding, the next government must set out a comprehensive set of reforms to ensure the system is sustainable, incorporating the views of both families and councils.

“Alongside reforming the tribunal system, increasing special school places, and encouraging more mainstream school inclusion, CCN believes that we should consider targeting financial support for SEND travel services on those that need it the most through the introduction of a national means-testing system.

“At a time of severe financial constraints, this will mean those who can least afford it are provided with free transport, while maintaining a comprehensive service for all of those requiring support. We understand that these reforms could be difficult, but such is the scale of the challenge they do warrant consideration.”

Notes to editor

  • The terms county and rural unitary/county authorities/county areas used in this release and the BBC analysis refers to the 21 county councils in England and the 17 unitary authorities in CCN membership. Non-rural unitary authorities refers to all remaining unitary authorities in England.
  • The main source of data contained in this release is based on BBC Freedom of Information requests to all local authorities in England. In addition, CCN worked with the BBC to source additional data from its member councils and provided Section 251 data (see here) for selected councils where data for 2018/19 was missing to ensure consistency in the comparative analysis of total spend for 2018/19 and 2023/24. CCN provided additional analysis by tier of local government. A breakdown of results is provided below:
COUNCIL 2018/19 TOTAL SPEND 2023/24 TOTAL SPEND % Change
County & Rural Unitary 387,295,765 790,474,791 104.1
Non-Rural Unitary 88,147,720 179,090,264 103.2
Met Borough 115,676,645 225,353,218 94.8
London 140,677,594 229,293,368 63.0
England 731,797,725 1,424,211,641 94.6


  • The average increase in the number of SEND pupils transported was calculated for each tier of local government using only those councils where demand and expenditure data was available for both 2018/19 and 2023/24. A breakdown of results is provided below:


COUNCIL 2018/19 Average No. SEND CHILDREN 2023/24 Average No. SEND CHILDREN % change
County & Rural Unitary 1,694 2,458 45.1
Non-Rural Unitary 551 734 33.3
Met Borough 799 1,207 51.1
London 602 799 32.7
England 911 1,300 42.6


  • The average increase in cost per SEND pupil using transport was calculated for each tier of local government by dividing total spend by the total number of those receiving transport using only those councils where demand and expenditure data was available for both 2018/19 and 2023/24.
COUNCIL 2018/19 Average spend per SEND Child 2023/24 Average spend per SEND Child % change
County & Rural Unitary 6,792 9,750 43.5
Non-Rural Unitary 4,559 6,016 32.0
Met Borough 5,337 7,123 33.5
London 8,433 10,310 22.3
England 6,280 8,299 32.2