‘Exponential’ rise in special needs pupils leads to councils spending over £300m on transporting young people to school last year

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2018 | 21 November 2018

An ‘exponential’ rise in vulnerable and special needs pupils requiring school transport is driving up costs for councils, with county local authorities spending over £300m on transporting those young people to school last year – £75m more than four years’ ago.

County authorities – England’s largest councils – are warning that rising demand in special educational needs are creating ‘budget risks’ for councils as they struggle to cope with year-on-year rises in eligible pupils – due to several new ‘unfunded burdens’.

A survey from the County Councils Network (CCN) of its 36 member authorities revealed:

  • Counties are spending 30% more (£74m) on free school transport for eligible special needs pupils in 2017/18 compared to four years prior.
  • This is driven by a rise in pupils, with data from 28 of those councils showing that they are transporting over 7,500 more pupils compared to four years’ ago.
  • Last year, 23 county authorities spent £166.3m on taxis, minibuses, and private hire vehicles, which are necessary for pupils with specific needs. These councils said either the entire or ‘vast majority’ of their special educational needs home to school transport budgets were spent on these vehicles. This number has increased from £127.9m in 2014.

Download a CCN analysis of the findings here.

County leaders are warning that this increase in demand, and an increase in costs for individual pupils, is a ‘major budget risk’, coming at a time when local authorities are already under significant financial pressure. The network’s research was covered by the Guardian here.

Legislative changes, such as the raising of the eligibility age of special educational needs pupils to 25 from 18 set out in the Children and Families Act 2014 and population increases and improvements in medical science have led to a major rise in special educational needs pupils in counties.

At the same time, the added complexity of pupils’ needs and circumstances have increased costs for individual pupils. In Leicestershire, the annual cost for a pupils’ school transport has risen from £4,125 per year in 2013 to £5,661 last year.

It is a legal requirement for councils to offer free transport to their nearest suitable school depending on a pupils’ disability up to the age of 17.

Out of the respondents, Kent County Council has the largest spend on taxis and private hire, spending £22.7m on the vehicles last year.

In total, 36 county authorities spent £323.3m on free school transport for special educational needs in 2017/18, up from £249.3m in 2013/14. For some local authorities, this works out at £8,000 per pupil.

Kent County Council spends the most on special educational needs home to school transport out of all CCN member authorities, with its £24.9m expenditure in 2017/18; a 45% increase compared to 2013/14. Surrey County Council recorded the second-highest expenditure of £23m last year, a 32% increase on 2014.

All but two authorities recorded an increase in expenditure over that four year period.

CCN has released the survey at its conference which begun on Sunday. The network will launch its new campaign for additional funding for councils in next year’s Spending Review. To launch the campaign, ‘A Fairer Future for Counties’, CCN chairman Cllr Paul Carter told over 200 delegates that the ‘long-term survival of councils’ is at risk without additional funding in the Spending Review, and without fairer funding for counties beyond that.

CCN research shows that county authorities receive £182 per person for services such as school transport, significantly less than city and metropolitan borough authorities’ funding per head of £351, and London councils’ funding per head of £481. This ‘underfunding’, coupled with demand-led pressures for counties, means that these increased costs for special needs pupils’ school transport is far more of an issue for councils at a time when they are under significant financial pressures.


Cllr Carl Les, County Councils Network spokesman for children’s services and education, said:

“Demand for special educational needs funded school transport has increased exponentially over the last four years, but our funding for these lifeline services has remained static. These new unfunded burdens have come at a time when local authority budgets are being stretched due to the unprecedented financial pressures we all face.

 “As a result, many of us are exceeding our budgets every year on school transport – my own council is currently dealing with financial pressures on SEN transport of £2.3m on transport for special educational needs last year, as our expenditure has significantly increased compared to four years ago when the SEN reforms were introduced. With demand and costs only projected to rise, these present a major budget risk for many of us which will become unsustainable in the long run without additional funding.

 “These services are a lifeline for our young people particularly in rural areas, and the fact that these pupils with learning disabilities and special needs are living longer is something to be celebrated, but these services must be adequately funded. Regrettably, we are having to scale back the services we aren’t legally obliged to deliver or re-route funding from other services because the current funding for school transport is not keeping up with demand. We would encourage government to address this in the Spending and fairer funding reviews.”


Notes to editor

  • For the yearly expenditure figures, CCN received 30 responses from its member councils. The remaining figures are taken from Section 251 outturn data for those two financial years, published by the Department for Education.
  • For the taxi, minibus, and private hire figure CCN received responses from 22 of its member councils. Four of these respondents said the ‘vast majority’ of their yearly SEN home to school transport expenditure is on these vehicles. In those instances, CCN has calculated 80% of their total expenditure to estimate their expense on taxis, private hire, and minibus.
  • The per-head figures in this press release are taken from councils’ Settlement Funding Assessment (SFA), which is calculated from the Revenue Support Grant to councils, plus retained business rates.
  • CCN Annual Conference 2018 takes place from Sunday, November 18 to Tuesday, November 20. This year’s event will feature high profile speakers and commentators, and over 200 delegates attending.