‘Complete chaos’: review reveals safeguarding failings in school transport service
Opposition groups on both unitary councils are calling for changes after an audit has revealed just how badly the service is being run
By Sarah Ward
“We are putting children at risk and that is unacceptable. No child should be going into our home to transport service without the company having DBS checks.” Cllr John McGhee
The county’s transport service system used to get children to school safely has major problems, with more than 800 different contracts not being monitored properly and leaving children at risk.
The review by West Northamptonshire Council’s internal audit team found some drivers did not have the required proof they were safe to be around children; many companies with contracts have not been inspected; performance is not being looked at and complaints are not always being acted upon or monitored properly.
The authority, which runs the service for both West and North unitary councils and has agreements with more than 130 different transport and taxi companies, has now been given a series of recommendations to ensure changes are made.
The audit has also revealed the department is understaffed, with currently just two compliance officers employed to make sure all policies and legal requirements are met.
Cllr Keith Holland-Delamere*, who is shadow member for transport on West Northamptonshire Council said:
“The entire model for how this vital service is run is broken and in complete chaos. It is failing families; it’s failing schools and ultimately failing the council.
“Maintaining 800 separate contracts for a service that used to be provided by the council is ludicrous and is producing an unacceptable cost to residents.
“Currently the outsourcing of this service is failing to demonstrate that it can provide good value, align with our climate strategy, or meet the needs of our families and children.
“We need to be learning from other local authorities about how they support residents with their transport needs. Transport should be financially sustainable and ensure seamless commuting and commerce but also, we should acknowledge that it is a public good – one that if we invest in, we can save money and release pressure from other services.”
Leader of the Labour opposition at North Northamptonshire Council, Cllr John McGhee has called on the service to be managed in-house by the North education department, rather than by the west.
“We are putting children at risk and that is unacceptable. No child should be going into our home to school transport service without the company having DBS checks.
“When services are outsourced it is much harder for councillors to get all the right information. I think we need to come away from anything that is a joint service with the West unitary.”
Transport to school must be provided by local authorities for children of compulsory school age (five to 16) if it is beyond a set distance (this is not the case if a parent chooses a school outside of this distance) or if the child has mobility issues or a disability that may prevent them from walking to school. Last year the budget for home to school transport across Northamptonshire was £18m.
The audit found a series of issues. The report said:
“Our testing identified several weaknesses and non-compliance with the established policies and procedures, including:
• The annual audits of transport providers to confirm their suitability to be delivering services for the Council were not completed in a timely manner. Upon further enquiry, the team have acknowledged that this is mainly due to the team’s capacity and lack of operator cooperation.
• Safer recruitment training for key staff at each operator and safeguarding awareness training for all drivers and PAs has not been delivered, which is not in line with the requirements as set out within the Dynamic Purchasing System Service specification and supplier agreement documents.
• Monthly management information has not been agreed or provided by the operators • Regular meetings with operators have not been taking place.
• Inconsistencies were noted in the way the spot checks and complaints forms were completed.
• It was unclear whether actions were followed up appropriately due to inadequate record keeping.
The auditors found a major challenge was under staffing within the department and the report also said:
“The organisational impact of the findings is assessed as Major, as the weaknesses identified during the review have left the council open to significant risks. Annual audits were not completed consistently on operators, no management information was being provided in relation to the service provision, spot checks and complaints records were not consistent and actions were not always followed up in a timely manner. If the risks materialise it would have a major impact upon the organisation as a whole.”
Between September last year and this April there were more than 180 complaints made about the service. The monitoring was done by spot checks and looking at complaints. A check by the audit team of a small sample of 15 of the 156 spot checks undertaken by the council between April last year and March 22, found that in two cases the driver or passenger assistant did not have a necessary DBS check to prove they were safe to drive or accompany children.
Recommendations from the auditors include developing a central record system; ensuring the licensing and home to school transport teams communicates better; develop and monitor a series of performance targets to understand how the service is doing and ensure spot checks and complaints are carried out properly.
The report went before the West’s audit committee last week and will be presented to North Northamptonshire Council’s audit committee next Monday.
Home to school transport came under intense scrutiny at the start of the school year with some SEND pupils failing to be collected from home/school on time, regularly and in some cases not at all.
The service is also overspent. In September it was projected to exceed its budget by £3.1m, with the rising levels of inflation and the COVID-19 pandemic being the explanation provided by the Conservative administration at a recent cabinet meeting. The service was also overspent by £3m last year, with the overspend being revealed quite late in the financial year.
*Cllr Phil Larratt is the WNC cabinet member responsible for transport responded to NN Journal and said he ‘welcomed’ the report.
“Having taken on the service on a county wide basis from the former County Council following Local Government reorganisation, we identified a series of areas which needed focus and review. We asked our internal audit team to look at Home to School Transport and worked with the team in identifying issues, best practice and the most efficient and effective way of delivering this service, with pupil safety being our top priority.
“The service is being split so that both West and North Northants councils will have responsibility for Home to School Transport in their individual areas going forward. I welcome the audit report, albeit that it highlights certain issues, it clearly informs us as to what we have to do to deliver a quality service in West Northamptonshire, that puts pupil safety at the heart of the service.
“From the audit report a clear action plan has been developed, that we are all signed up to, that will lead to the delivery a service we can be proud of. We have already started rectifying many of the issues contained within the report with a clear timeline for completing all these necessary changes and improvements. Of the 11 recommendations, six of the highest priority actions have already been completed, four are in progress and will be in place by the end of this year, with the remaining action to be completed by April next year.”
*An earlier version of this article attributed Cllr Hollan-Delamere’s quote to his colleague Cllr bob Purser. We apologise for the error. Cllr Larratt’s statement was given after original publication.
If you are a parent with concerns about the service you can contact Sarah Ward confidentially here
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