Driver shortage leaves Walden pupil without school transport

Main: A school pupil writing; Inset: taxi

School transport has been hit by the driver shortage (File photos) - Credit: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/Archant

A Saffron Walden child was left without school transport, forcing his mum to drive him to class 10 miles away.

Adam, not his real name, has seizures, round-the-clock care and uses a wheelchair, so Essex County Council pays taxi firm 24x7 Group to take him to school.

But a driver shortage in December, partly caused by Covid-19, forced his mum to make two roundtrips to school - totalling 40 miles - each day for two weeks.

Adam's mum has called on the council to produce a crisis plan to ensure every child can get to school.

She believes that a replacement driver would have been found if her child could take a bus with other children.

An Essex County Council bus stop in Saffron Walden

Essex County Council: "Covid-19 and the wider driver shortage have had an impact on the delivery of transport services" - Credit: Will Durrant

Essex County Council has apologised and sent Adam's mum a compensation form to claim for her journeys.

Adam's mum said: "When you have a child with special educational needs, you don't get anything without fighting for it.

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"There should be plans in place so that when a driver falls ill, there is backup."

She said that school is a safe place for Adam where he can learn and socialise.

Adam's mum had to ask county councillor Paul Gadd and Kemi Badenoch MP for help to resolve the case.

The schoolboy's mum said: "It should not be for us as parents to take this to MP-level."

We asked Essex councillor Lee Scott, the county cabinet member for sustainable transport, whether driver shortages were causing widespread disruption.

A council spokesperson replied with a statement which reads: "Unfortunately, the recent significant increase in Covid-19 cases, linked to the Omicron variant and exacerbated by the wider national driver shortage, has meant that it has not been possible to deliver a small minority of journeys.

"This is disappointing and ECC apologises for that disruption."

They added: "Both Covid-19 and the wider driver shortage have, unsurprisingly, had an impact on the delivery of transport services over the last 20 months.

"This includes home to school transport services and public bus services and it is a national issue.

"Essex County Council has worked closely with transport operators to maintain as high as possible service levels over that extended period.

"Both officers and transport providers have worked exceptionally hard in extremely challenging circumstances.

"We do not comment on individual cases.

"ECC has a well-established procedure for managing questions, issues and complaints."

What the Department for Education says

The government has said it knows about localised issues across the country.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "Most school transport across the country is continuing to operate as normal, with only a few isolated local issues.

"Local authorities are working hard to maintain continuity for children wherever possible.

"The Department for Transport has also asked local transport authorities and bus operators to prioritise routes that serve schools."

They added: "Where transport is unable to operate, with parents' consent, the local authority may reimburse them for taking their children to school themselves.

"Headteachers may record a pupil as ‘unable to attend for exceptional circumstances’ where the transport arranged by the local authority was not available."

A spokesperson for 24x7 Group said they echoed Essex County Council's comment, but declined to comment further.

Staff shortages

Bus and taxi firms recorded staff shortages in 2021.

A Unite the Union bus driver survey in November found that 79% of respondents said that vacancies had increased in their garages since March 2020.

The Licensed Private Hire Car Association (LPHCA) estimates that the number taxi driver vacancies stands at six figures nationwide.

Steve Wright, LPHCA chair, said: "I'm not surprised at all that a child with special educational needs was impacted.

"There's a perfect storm.

"The lack of demand combined with drivers having their cars repossessed because of costs has made it difficult for many to stay in the business."