Concerns over school bus scheme

Mark Tilley, the council's assistant director for infrastructure
Mark Tilley, the council's assistant director for infrastructure

Dozens of children with disabilities and special educational needs have swapped taxis for buses on the school run under a council scheme.

Councillors on the Confident Places scrutiny committee this week heard about the work of independent travel training programme Liberty.

Around 60 young people have so far received special training enabling them to use the bus service to get to classes rather than having the home-to-school taxi service.

Another 30 are due to be trained over the summer months in a scheme which has been implemented but which has never been considered by the borough’s elected councillors.

The changes bring clear financial benefits to the local authority as it looks to make cuts as the transport bill for 638 young people to get to school in a taxi or minibus currently comes to around £3.3m a year.

That means the council is annually spending more than £5,000 per child, whereas a 12-month bus pass will set the town hall back around £378 per child.

Wigan Council says the scheme brings huge benefits in terms of getting disabled young people and those with special educational needs to live more independently.

However, the prospect of rolling back the taxi contracts further has angered the borough’s hackney cab industry, which said the home-to-school service was a vital part of some drivers’ livelihoods.

The industry also questioned whether Liberty would work well, saying previous attempts to cut the transport bill had caused problems for the young people.

Mark Tilley, Wigan Council’s assistant director for infrastructure, said: "All these young people are now travelling to and from school or college independently and more importantly have the life skills that will enable them to live more fulfilled lives during their education and when they leave education.

"This is a fantastic example of what can be achieved through the council having a different conversation with our service users.

"We now focus on what their aspirations and ambitions are rather than the traditional approach of a council providing a service just because it always has done.

"We are very proud of all of our young people who have completed the training and the independence they have achieved will help them throughout their lives."

The training is currently only open to pupils aged 16 or over at high schools and colleges, with travel trainers working to identify teenagers who could possibly get to lessons on their own.

The project is working with both mainstream education establishments and special schools.

Those going through the training programme learn how bus timetables work, journey planning and then practical training in road safety and how to use buses.

The scheme has not, however, met with unanimous praise, with understandable concern coming from taxi drivers who are currently paid for the home-to-school contracts.

Eddie Earley, union rep for the borough’s hackney cab drivers, said: "It will definitely hurt the industry if they try to take it away.

"We would be totally against it because drivers rely on it to pay their mortgage.

"It will affect their wages and the way they live.

"I would say 90 per cent of the drivers who do school contracts rely on the money.

"It’s a very important source of income for certain drivers.

"Wigan Council has been penny-pinching on the service for a while but they tried to do something similar a few years ago and putting kids on the buses caused problems."

Wigan is one of many cash-strapped local authorities looking at ways of reducing its transport bill.

An investigation on national radio recently revealed problems with changes made by other councils, with some parents now having to drive their children to school.