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Special needs' £7.9m taxi bill
OXFORDSHIRE’S multi-million pound bill for taxis to take special needs children to school is to be scrutinised by county council bosses seeking budget cuts.
Oxfordshire County Council will examine whether savings can be made from the bill, which was £7.9m in the last financial year.
The total rose by more than £900,000 to £7.9m in 2012 to 2013, with one school reportedly ferrying 89 pupils in 89 different taxis.
The cash mostly goes on transporting 1,700 children with special needs each year, at a cost of £27.4m from April 2008.
The council confirmed the spending will not escape consideration in its search for £61m savings but said it was too early to give details.
Last year’s bill includes £55,368 on 22 pupils at Chipping Norton School and £229,532 for 66 students at Abingdon and Witney College.
Concerns were last night raised about the impact of cuts on children with special needs.
One parent Gillian Stickings, from Risinghurst, Oxford, urged the county council not to cut the funding which helps her daughter Judith, 10.
She said: “It has been a huge lifesaver.”
Jan Sunman, chairman of Oxfordshire Family Support Network, which supports families of people with learning disabilities, said: “The council will still have to provide transport for the children with special education needs, how they will provide that will have to be looked at.
“It is very costly. Perhaps they may have to change whether they take individual children or use minibuses.
“The big issue will be if we start to have minibuses touring around. We don’t want children being kept on a minibus for some time.”
Already the council — spending £895m this year — has told staff all but seven of 44 children’s centres could close to save cash.
This came after the Conservative-run authority was told it needed to save an extra £61m by 2018 on top of £201m cuts already made or committed to.
Labour group leader Liz Brighouse said: “I have always been a bit concerned about the number of taxis we use to take children to school — it is not co-ordinated, it is all individual taxis from home to school.
“We need to be very careful because it could impact very badly on children.”
Liberal Democrat group leader Zoe Patrick said a briefing by council officers revealed 89 children were getting 89 taxis to one school.
Minibuses should be considered, she said, adding: “It is our duty to look at this and make sure there isn’t duplication.”
Council spokesman Paul Smith said: “The council will be exploring this area to see if savings can potentially be made in the same way that it is looking through all of its budgets.”
More than 90 per cent of journeys are for special needs children, he said, at schools with “relevant specialisms to cater for individual needs”.
He said the council uses its own vehicles when possible but taxis are needed for those who live “quite some distance” from the school.
Mr Smith said: “These may also sometimes be at different times. It is not possible to have a permanent timetable using a vast fleet of vehicles that would cater for all of these children on the wide range of very individual routes needed to get them to where they need to be.”
Special needs children get free transport if the school is more than three miles away for those aged eight and over.
For the under-eights that drops to two miles away, or if they cannot walk, or it is not safe for them to do so.
CASE STUDY: 'Cuts would cause stress and unhappiness'
CEREBRAL palsy sufferer Judith Stickings, 10, from Risinghurst, is taken to the John Watson Special School near Wheatley by taxi.
Her mother Gillian, 40, said the taxi service provided both respite care and financial help for the family.
She said: “It makes a huge difference. We have quite a low income and it would mean time and money and stress taking her in rush-hour traffic.”
She said helping Judith in and out of a car was hard work and the help was valuable.
The Downside Road resident also said her daughter shared the taxi with three other pupils. She added: “It is an efficient service.”
Mrs Stickings said the school had written to parents last week to inform them of the threat of cuts to the service.
But she said scrapping the service would lead to more traffic near the school which she said has a small car park.
She added: “It will make people stressed and unhappy.”
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