SCHOOL transport costs in Dorset could be heading for a term-time cost of £1million a week – unless savings are found.*

Over two years the expense of running the service has risen by £12million and now exceeds £35million over a full year.

Many children with special education needs are transported to and from school daily by taxi with parents often fighting attempts to switch them to a cheaper option.

Former education portfolio holder Cllr Andrew Parry said the council was keen to offer training to children with special needs so that they could use public or school buses – but was often met with a challenge at tribunal level, or through the courts.

“Parental choice is a really significant issue… about 97 per cent of the findings go in favour of the families so any attempt to change puts us on the backfoot.

“Travel training will often be met with a push-back from families who would rather have a door to door taxi service and if they really push and went to a tribunal it would likely find in their favour,” he said.

Dorset Council is currently responsible for getting around 7,000 mainstream children to and from school daily with 1,200 children with special educational needs who are often unable to travel on regular buses, where they exist, or on school transport routes.

With wage and fuel inflation added in the costs of providing the school transport service has increased from £24.5m in 2021/22 to over £35m in 23/24, recently rising at the rate of more than 20 per cent a year.

Of the £35.02m budget for the current financial year just over £19m is spend on SEND transport (up from £9.2m in 2019/20) with mainstream school transport costing £10.83m; public transport £3.93m and ‘operational support’ £1.2m.

Around three hundred council staff are employed by Dorset Council to work on school transport.

Corporate director for economic growth and infrastructure, Matthew Piles, told councillors that the crux of the matter was where children lived and where they went to school – often involving lengthy daily journeys, including some being educated outside of the county boundaries.

He said the aim of Dorset Council was to provide more local facilities for SEND children to help reduce transport costs and keep the children within their local community.

The council currently has a £40m programme investing in adding special units at local schools and providing some purpose-built units, with a new bid for £14m currently awaiting a decision from the Department for Education. Part of the initial £40m budget was used to buy the Coombe House School site near Shaftesbury when it closed as a private school.

Place and Resources Scrutiny committee chairman, Cllr Shane Bartlett, questioned whether Dorset Council was getting value for money from the £11m it had spent on the special school where, he said, only 70 pupils were currently being taught.

The committee is to ask the council’s Cabinet for a response to that question and to outline how the council proposes to speed up the provision of local, special need places, across Dorset.

* £1m per week in term time based on the following calculation - transport budget 24/25 £35.7m divided by 52 weeks = £686,539 weekly cost. However schools are only open a maximum of 39 weeks  with breaks and inset days - giving a weekly, term time cost of £915, 384. If rates continue to rise at 20per cent, or more, £1m will be exceeded within 12 months.