Problems with home to school transport for children with special educational needs will be examined in detail after councillors agreed unanimously to set up a cross-party policy panel.
Once again the council apologised to children, parents and staff affected by the continuing problems with home to school transport.
Since the start of the school term in September, the problems have left some children in unsuitable transport and others without a way to get to school.
At the third time of asking by Conservatives, Brighton and Hove City Council backed the setting up of a cross-party panel. It will have two members each from the Labour, Green and Conservative parties.
When previous requests were made by Councillor Mary Mears, at the Children, Young People and Skills Committee, and Councillor Lee Wares at the Audit and Standards Committee, the council said that an external review led by an official from another council would be enough.
Councillor Mears told the meeting of the full council on Thursday (October 24) that she had visited Downs View School the day before to see how transport had improved.
She was concerned that this far into the school year there was a driver who was not permitted to pick up vulnerable children, an untrained escort, a driver without a badge, uncertainty about an escort’s vetting (known as DBS checks) and a driver subcontracting from another.
She said: “Our motion calls for a cross-party member-led panel – not to stop the external review being organised by the administration but to feed into the process and to strengthen the findings and also the way forward.
“There is so much distrust and concern being raised by parents whose children rely on home to school transport that we believe this added process will make the external review far more open and transparent which frankly needs to happen because to date this contract has caused more upset than I have ever known in the past.”
Councillor Mears has raised the contract as a corporate risk.
Conservative group leader Steve Bell reminded councillors that his group had warned that there would be problems with home to school transport for months before the new dynamic purchasing system contracts began.
He said: “This decision was made by the administration against advice.
“They listened to the voices of officers and external consultants.”
Green councillor Hannah Clare urged that the policy panel looking into the problems should have an opposition councillor in the chair. This was agreed.
She said: “Ultimately what we all want is for the disruption to end and pupils to receive the support they need.
“This is an equalities issue as much as anything else. We would like to see a new equalities impact assessment and will feed that into the review.”
The move came after one of the parents affected by the chaos, Pippa Hodge, addressed the council meeting at Hove Town Hall about the continuing problems faced by young people with special needs and disabilities as they made their way to school.
She said: “Imagine Southern Rail introduced a similar overspend reduction drive: fewer, bigger sardine-can carriages and a much longer commute.
“You are buckled in beside Passenger 2 who is smacking their head on the window. Passenger 3 is blowing saliva bubbles and spit lands on your face. Passenger 4 sits right in your personal space. Passenger 5 lunges over and grabs your hair.
“Fifty-five minutes later you arrive but the train sits off platform for another 15 minutes of hell.”
She described the issues with home to school transport as one of many that parents of children with special needs faced with support from the Parent Carers’ Council (PaCC) and Amaze.
She said: “The game is up. No more gambling with our children’s safety and wellbeing.
“Please breathe down necks, pay close attention to every card that has been dealt, every hand played – and scrutinise.”
Labour councillor John Allcock, who chairs the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee, apologised for what had happened and promised that he would not rest until the problem was resolved.
He said: “We want a level of scrutiny and challenge to make sure that we learn all there is to learn from this and so we can use that knowledge to make improvements.
“We know this won’t be comfortable, but it needs to be done and done quickly so that any improvements can be implemented as soon as they are identified.”
Councillor Allcock said that he would be more than happy to have the extra layer of scrutiny provided by the policy panel.
His deputy, fellow Labour councillor Kate Knight, said that she was sorry for the upset, anxiety and stress caused by the changes to children’s transport.
She said: “We absolutely stand ready to play our part in the policy panel and for whatever comes out of the independent review, however uncomfortable.
“And from that learning, I really believe that between us all, we will build a system and a process that parents and carers can trust and where our young people feel valued and settled and safe.”