Changes to councils’ transport policies have caused a huge increase in complaints from parents, according to a new report from the Local Government Ombudsman.
The watchdog said it was upholding more complaints from parents and carers who need to find alternative ways to get their children to school when councils change their policies, or the way they apply them.
However, local authority leaders said it was becoming more difficult to offer transport for pupils because of “sustained financial challenges”.
In 2015-16 the LGO received 261 complaints and enquiries about school transport, compared with 160 the year before – a 63 per cent increase.
In one case, a teenager with autism suffered when the council changed the way it applied its transport policy and stopped providing him with a taxi to school. His family were informed that he should get to school by walking for a mile through an often unlit area with no footpath, boarding a train and then catching a bus.
The council recommended this even though the boy’s conditions meant that he had a significantly reduced awareness of danger and a problem with loud noises.
In another case, a mother appealed against the council’s decision to refuse free school transport for her youngest daughter to travel to the school which her sisters attended.
Transport had previously been provided for the elder children due to the family’s income, but following a review of entitlement, the mother was told that it could only be provided for the middle daughter because she was at a critical stage in her education and a move to a nearer school would be too disruptive.
The mother asked the council to provide discretionary transport because the family had been through difficult circumstances – her husband had died and their home had recently been burgled – and it was important the girls remained together. The appeal panel was provided with information about the circumstances, but decided not to provide free transport.
The ombudsman subsequently found that there was no evidence the panel had even looked at whether there were any exceptional circumstances in order for it to consider exercising discretion in this case.
Michael King, the ombudsman, said councils had to ensure that decisions regarding school transport awards were made “fairly, legally and transparently”.
“Failing to do this can cause confusion, financial hardship and have a significant impact on some of the most vulnerable families, particularly those who have children with special educational needs,” he said.
He said he understood “the financial strain councils are under” but added that it was their responsibility to make sure parents and carers “are kept properly informed throughout the process, and told clearly the reasons for any decisions made”.
Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said councils took their duty to provide school transport for those in need “very seriously”.
But he added: “Councils continue to face significant funding pressures, amid further cuts to funding by central government.
“Local authorities are working hard to ensure suitable travel arrangements are made for children who could not reasonably be expected to walk or would otherwise find it difficult to attend school.
“However, this is becoming increasingly difficult in the face of such sustained financial challenges.”
In last week's Budget the government announced it would extend access to free school transport to cover selective schools, at a cost of £20 million over four years.