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Home-to-school transport is vital support for families raising children with special needs. It can make the difference between a parent being able to hold-down a job or not. But demand is growing and, if budgets were tight before Covid-19, it is safe to assume they will be even tighter after. Technology can help transport planners navigate the need to find savings while delivering these essential services.

UK local authorities spend in excess of £1bn on home to school transport every year. A report published in 2019 found that 69% of the budget is allocated to SEN-D provision, just 26% of children. The national average for journey to school for a SEN-D child is around £11 each way. Cost of provision is growing, and the money has to come from somewhere. Over the last five years, pressure on budgets has led to 27% cuts in discretionary services for mainstream students.

Planning transport for SEND pupils

Questioning whether SEN-D transport planners could do better is a statement that will raise some heckles. It is a difficult job. Children with SEN-D requirements present a unique challenge. Many have complex personal needs and specialist schools are often far from the child’s home.

Meanwhile there is often a lack of flexibility on the supply side. Operators tend to only maintain fleets that they can keep busy all day, meaning the demand for vehicles is particularly intense at peak times. SEN-D children often need passenger assistants, a low-paid role for which it is difficult to recruit. The nature of the transport often means that drivers and support workers have to come into close contact with each child, putting both parties at risk - and some children with disabilities are unable to wear a mask. Sometimes, the combination of all these factors swings the balance of power to the operators.

‘That’ll do’?

Authorities are stuck between the needs of the children and families, the growth in demand, and the limitations of the market. As I said, it’s a difficult job.

But under the pull of conflicting forces, are authorities settling for ‘that’ll do’ routing?

Many local authorities spend weeks during the ‘planning season’ using free online tools such as Google Maps, or even physical maps and pins to manually plan routes. It’s a time-consuming process that doesn’t lend itself to query and change. And even when authorities use automated routing, they rarely compare products to assess the quality of results.

Optimised route planning gives planners’ visibility of operational constraints and more time and headspace to concentrate on contract management and stakeholder communication; it saves money on contracts, it improves the client experience, and it reduces emissions. The planners’ job is complex, but technology can help them.

Of course, much of this boils down to the F-word: funding. Funding for SEN schools has fallen 17% since 2015. But funding needs to be met with a willingness for scrutiny to guarantee value for money. Routing is just one element of SEN transport, but a good quality routing solution can make an enormous difference to the overall spend.

This is why we strongly advocate that planners compare routing solutions. As an example, one of our customers, found our software helped them secure savings of more than £270k; 115 miles per day; and over 3 hours of combined travel time for students - to just one school. The total savings, including those from the ongoing reduction in contracted vehicles, are now approaching £1m.

A further benefit of route optimisation is that it frees up planners’ time to focus on other areas; giving them the tools they need to enable better communication with families, schools and the transport providers, relieving pressure on all sides. Particularly this year, when tensions have been running higher than usual.

Building on best practice

Although there is room for improvement, there are lots of positive examples of best practice. We see compassion and commitment in the people we come into contact with – a real desire to create a better service and improve lives for children with SEN and their families. And despite the fall in funding, some money is filtering through and authorities are investing in new provision: Wiltshire is investing £33m in special schools in the north of the county; and Surrey County Council has just announced that it is using funding received from government in 2019 to create 213 additional specialist school places to save children having to make excessively long journeys outside the county.

We are also seeing a new generation of local government officers lobbying leadership to make better use of technology, such as route planning software. Although technology may not fix some of the deep-seated issues, it gives transport planners more time, better visibility and an evidence-base for explaining decisions.

Post-Covid-19, local authority budgets are likely to be tighter than ever. Efficient home-to-school transport routes can help those budgets go further.

If you are the responsible contact for home-to-school transport within a school or college, or perhaps work in the education department within a local authority, ask the planning department responsible for home-to-school transport in your area if they’re willing to test their current planning process against alternatives. A change could find improvements that secures a happier journey to school, not just during this pandemic, but for the rest of their learning journey. 

Liz Davidson at QRoutes

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