Plans to charge parents for additional SEND transport costs have been criticised as  “astonishing and morally questionable” by campaigners.

Parents of SEND children have warned that Sutton Council’s plans could even price disabled children out of travelling to school. 

Cognus, Sutton Council’s mainstream and SEND education provider, currently organises transport for children to be taken to their SEND school, which due to shortages are often out of the borough.

However, recent changes to the Council’s Home to School Travel Assistance Policy propose to charge parents for this previously free service. 

In a letter sent to parents earlier this month, Cognus stated that parents with SEND children aged 16 plus will be expected to pay an £800 a year contribution towards transport costs.

They have also stipulated that this will drop to £400 for low-income families and that no charge will apply for families receiving a personal travel budget or mileage payments.

One parent, who has two children in out-of-borough SEND schools, believes this change has come at the worst possible time for parents.

The parent, who wished not to be named, told the local democracy reporting service (LDRS) how parents should have been informed of these changes before picking their schools ahead of the academic year.

The mother from North Cheam said: “We knew they were reviewing the transport policy, they had a consultation but the new policy hadn’t been released at the point in which we named schools in our education health care plan (EHCP).

“If they wanted to bring it in for September, it should have been in the local authority prospectus for the schools in September last year so parents could make an informed choice. 

“What we have now is a situation where parents have chosen a place for their children based on the previous transport policy and now they’ve accepted the place we are finding out that we are going to have to pay all of this money.”

The parent told the LDRS how the process of deciding on the right SEND school is much more “involved” than that experienced in mainstream schooling.

Extensive visits and assessments are required before parents can decide whether that school is suitable for their child.

After this choice is made, parents must apply for council-organised transportation for their children.

Transportation is often required as the number of SEND schools is limited, often leading parents to have to choose schools over 10 miles away.

This was the case for the North Cheam parent, who had children who previously attended a school in Godalming before transferring to a school in Hammersmith.

She told the LDRS how, without the Council’s transport, her children would have to face a gruelling mix of tube and bus travel lasting over an hour and a half.

She believes the transportation to be all the more essential because of added difficulties her children were likely to face if they travelled on their own.

She said: “They are penalising us for our children’s disabilities.

“To get to Hammersmith would take a bus and two changes of tube, it’s an hour and a half long journey. How is a teenager supposed to do that to get to school, particularly one with additional emotional and cognitive needs.

“This is discrimination because we’re not asking this of a mainstream child, we wouldn’t put the mainstream child in a position where their parents are forced to change their school if the local authority decides against providing transport.”

The mum told the LDRS that she now stands to be hit with a £1600 bill for the yearly transport of her children, payable in 28 days.

However, she also made clear she felt this was symptomatic of Sutton’s wider treatment of SEND families. 

She said: “They (Cognus) are choosing to ride roughshod over the law, they don’t view themselves as being there to meet the needs of SEND children and help them get an appropriate education. They see themselves as guardians of public money.

“We’re not sitting on bags of money, we’ve got less money because we have had to take Sutton to a tribunal.

"Last year, 98.5 per cent of SEND tribunal case tribunals were won by parents and that is the extent to which the system is abused to delay providing appropriate educational provision that might cost more money.

“All my friends got a loft conversion or an extension and I got an EHCP, but I’m one of the lucky ones that I can afford the report.

"I’m not even sure I want grandchildren at this point because what if they’re autistic and the world is so awful and against them and they can’t get an education? It’s so sad.”

EHCP plans are a legal document that requires the local authority to meet the specific needs of a disabled child.

They are not guaranteed to every parent. 

Fellow Sutton parent and SEND campaigner Hayley Harding agrees that this policy will hurt families in the borough, who are already struggling to secure suitable education for their children.

Speaking to the LDRS, she said: “Any family right now is feeling the effect of the higher cost of living but for those with disabled children/young adults this impact is even higher. 

“This is why the council’s decision to charge our most financially challenged families £400 per child per year at a time that they need more support not less is both astonishing and morally questionable.

"This is bound to have the effect of preventing some disabled teens from going to the school they need because their families simply can’t afford it.”

Councillor Tom Drummond, who leads Sutton’s Tory opposition, was active on the People Committee meeting back in February during which these changes were discussed.

He believes the changes were introduced against the wishes of parents in the borough and questioned the consultation they were given.

He told the LDRS: "To begin with, the Consultation process was fundamentally flawed. 

"It was open to all Sutton residents rather than specific stakeholders –  according to the briefing papers, only one respondent to the consultation was under 16 and only one respondent was aged 16 – 24.

“As I had pointed out when discussing another Sutton consultation in a previous Strategy and Resources committee, leading questions were being asked to justify the council’s desired result.

"A senior officer agreed with me that there were indeed leading questions. When looking at the consultation for assisted travel, it seemed the same practice had been applied.

“Over 70 per cent of respondents did not agree with the principle of contributions from families for post 16 children; 85 per cent of respondents did not agree that the contribution should be £800; and 81 per cent did not agree that the contribution for low-income families should be £400.

“In a previous People Committee meeting I asked that rather than Cognus pay a dividend to London Borough of Sutton they subsidise assisted travel. This didn’t even seem to be a consideration when presented to the committee which I found disappointing.”

When approached for comment, a representative from the London Borough of Sutton said: “Where other Councils have stopped providing post-16 assisted travel services, despite the huge pressures facing our budget, we are continuing to provide the service because we know just how important it is. 

“Working with families and asking for a contribution to transport costs, will allow the service to continue to be delivered within the Council’s current budget and will ensure that our young people can move around the borough and access education.”