Spiralling costs mean County Hall is now spending an average of almost £10,000 per pupil each year to transport those with special educational needs and disabilities to and from school.

Leaders at Norfolk County Council say it is costing them £40m to arrange buses and taxis for 4,100 youngsters with extra requirements, or more than £9,700 per child.

The figure has gone up significantly from the year before, when £33.3m was spent on 3,933 children, an average of £8,500.

Eastern Daily Press: Taxis, buses and minibuses are used to get the children to and from school - at a cost of £60mTaxis, buses and minibuses are used to get the children to and from school - at a cost of £60m (Image: Simon Finlay)

The sharp increase has been blamed on rising fuel costs, as well as a growing number of eligible pupils and a shortage of specialist school places, which means the children have to travel further for their education.

Because Norfolk is a rural county, the problem is thought to be especially acute here. Among some of the longer local journeys are 60-mile round trips by taxi to take children between Norwich and Thetford for school.

The figures have caused alarm at County Hall and raised concerns for the long-term sustainability of the arrangements.

The statistics show that special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) pupils now take up two-thirds of the council's overall £60m school transport budget, while accounting for less than a quarter of the total number of students.

Overall, school transport now accounts for a quarter of the council's education budget.


The county council has to provide free transport if a child is below eight years old and is
attending their nearest suitable school which is beyond a walking distance of two miles.

It also has to provide free transport if a child is aged between eight and 16 and attends their nearest suitable school which is beyond a walking distance of three miles.

It must also make transport arrangements if a child attends their nearest suitable school and cannot be reasonably expected to walk because the nature of the route is unsafe.

It has to provide free transport if a child is entitled to free school meals or their parents are on certain benefits and other criteria around the distance to school is met.

Eastern Daily Press: Council leaders are concerned at the 'alarming' rise in costs for home to school transportCouncil leaders are concerned at the 'alarming' rise in costs for home to school transport (Image: Newsquest)

For SEND pupils, the county council must arrange free home-to-school travel for children of compulsory school age who attend their nearest school and would be unable to walk there because of the distance, their special educational needs, disability or mobility problem, or because the nature of the route means it would be unsafe for them to do so.

These are children who have education, health and care plans - a formal acknowledgment of their special educational needs and disabilities, which lay out the support they need.

Those plans are put in place following assessments by the county council.

READ MORE: Norfolk County Council bosses admit school transport blunder


Penny Carpenter, cabinet member for children's services at Norfolk County Council, said she planned to raise her concerns with the Department for Education and ask for more funding.

Eastern Daily Press: Penny Carpenter, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's servicesPenny Carpenter, Norfolk County Council cabinet member for children's services (Image: Norfolk County Council)

She said: "Home-to-school transport now accounts for 25pc of the children’s services budget and the pressure on the service is unsustainable.

“The cost of home-to-school transport in Norfolk has grown from £38m several years ago and demand continues to rise. We need national investment and national solutions."

The council said it has invested £120m in new specialist schools and has a programme to increase SEND provision in mainstream schools.

Mrs Carpenter said: "We are doing everything we can to try to reduce spending, including supporting more children and young people to travel independently and making mainstream transport more inclusive.

"However, demand continues to rise and fuel and vehicle costs are increasing. The predicted increases in spending in this area are alarming and we need this to be addressed as a matter of urgency by government."

The county council needs to plug a £46.2m hole in its budget for 2023/24.

Some £26.5m of potential cuts and savings towards that have already been identified, including saving £4.8m from the children's services budget.

County Hall's plea for help from Whitehall comes as the County Councils Network (CCN) - which represents such authorities - produced a report about surging school transport costs.

Councils had appealed for chancellor Jeremy Hunt to announce extra support for local authorities in the autumn statement - but that did not materialise.

Eastern Daily Press: Chancellor Jeremy HuntChancellor Jeremy Hunt (Image: PA)

Mrs Carpenter said: "I am extremely disappointed that there was nothing in the autumn statement to address this pressure, or the other challenges facing children’s services and I will be raising it with the secretary of state."



One way to address the spiralling costs could be more means-testing.

The County Councils Network report recommends a range of reforms to home-to-school transport and SEND legislation, including the introduction of a national means-testing policy.

That would mean families above a specified income threshold would have to make a financial contribution.

But critics have raised concerns about this.

Eastern Daily Press: Labour county councillor Maxine WebbLabour county councillor Maxine Webb

Independent county councillor Maxine Webb said: "I am worried about the way this is going. The way the county council is doing this feels quite targeting and insulting - to put a price on children who have already experienced a lot of challenges in their lives.

"We should be talking about how to improve it, rather than the council talking about how expensive these children are.

"The system needs to change, rather than making it about the cost. With so many academies, the council doesn't run so many schools any more and has to rely on those being willing and able to support SEND children in mainstream education.

"With the way Ofsted is set up, there is a focus on academic results and schools may feel having SEND children might affect that, so that needs to change."

Ms Webb said underinvestment in specialist education meant children had to travel long distances to suitable schools.

She said she was concerned the CCN report suggested means-testing as a possible solution to funding woes.

"Why should parents of children with special needs and disabilities be expected to effectively pay for their children to be able to be educated?" she added.


A spokesman for the Department for Education, said: "Councils are responsible for providing the right support for children in their areas, including school transport.

"Our published SEND and alternative provision improvement plan sets out how we will make sure all children with special needs and disabilities receive the support they need.

"We are also putting significant investment into the high needs budget, which is increasing by a further £440m for 2024-25, bringing total funding to £10.5bn – an increase of over 60pc since 2019-20."