In which Medway Council finds itself on the receiving end of yet another critical report, this time from a very unhappy Ombudsman..
Medway Council is in trouble with the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman for a second time as top councillors haven’t changed their rules about how to support families with transport costs to get to school.
Who is this Ombudsman?
His name is Michael King. He’s quite a nice chap, whose job is to make sure councils do what they should and everyone gets a fair deal. He investigates complaints about councils, is independent, and gives recommendations.
Why is he criticising Medway Council?
A mother complained that the council hadn’t given her any support to transport her daughter to her nearest appropriate school, which every council should if the pupil has special educational needs or their parents are on benefits or it is simply too far or unsafe for the child to be “reasonably expected to walk”. The council had rejected her application for home to school transport support as it was not her nearest school, but Mr King said the council didn’t take into account whether there were actually spaces at her nearest school.
At first Medway Council accepted the recommendations from the Ombudsman but changed their mind at a cabinet meeting where they decided their transport policy was good as it is. But they did promise to start paying her mother after Ombudsman’s decision because a footpath was opened that made it the nearest school (how convenient!).
But that didn’t appease the Ombudsman. Mr King and his team wanted to council to change their policy and make back payments to anyone affected by their error.
What is the Ombudsman saying now?
Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Michael King said the council can’t challenge his team’s findings as the only way to do so was by a judicial review but the deadline has passed.
He added: “The council will find, by looking at our casework, it is the exception to the rule in taking this procedurally flawed approach. I therefore call on it to familiarise itself with its duties and to put in place the changes I have recommended to ensure it complies fully with the process.”
Why is this happening?
While I’m sure the council wants to help children get to school (they are human after all), their budget is being squeezed. Medway Council may be one of the few councils to go against an Ombudsman decision, but cuts to Home to School transport are happening across the country.
Some councils are cutting this provision by not including selective schools like grammar or faith schools, keeping to one drop off point or by simply fixing footpaths like Medway did. Some councils are looking to try and make it “means tested” so parents that can genuinely afford to pay for transport don’t get a hand out but at the moment, this isn’t possible. They hope these adjustments will mean families that genuinely need the support, like pupils with special needs and from disadvantaged backgrounds, will continue to do so. It would also save them a lot of money going to judicial reviews (many parents of children with special needs are sending councils to court for refusing to pay transport costs). And clearly Medway Council isn’t a fan of judicial reviews. They are stressful for all involved.
What will the council do next?
If I knew that, The Political Medway should start paying me. It does seem that there isn’t much option for the council except to follow the Ombudsman’s advice because the law is not on their side. But let’s wait to hear what they say before we play guessing games.
Greta Byline is a journalist.