DISABLED youngsters could be forced to find their own way to school as a cash-strapped council looks to slash free transport.

Oxfordshire County Council is considering a cost-saving plan to axe free rides to and from school, for students aged 16 or older who have special educational needs or disabilities.

The move would affect 124 youngsters who use the service, meaning parents would have to arrange their child's own travel or fork out hundreds of pounds to pay for the council's provision.

Students aged 16-25 who have an education, health and care plan (EHCP), which sets out a young person's individual needs, are currently entitled to free travel to their nearest suitable school.

But budget pressures, paired with a rising school population, has pushed the council to consult on plans to scrap the service, which costs £0.6m per year to run.

Julie Mabberley, chair of governors at The Fitzwaryn School in Wantage, said: "It's one more service being removed from those people in need.

"An important thing for children of any age is to help them become independent, and transport is a way of giving them that - even if it's just getting in a taxi or taking the bus.

"If that gets taken away, it's one less thing for them to learn about as part of their education."

Parents unable to drive to school themselves or arrange alternative transport can use the council's 'spare seat' scheme, paying for their child to travel via school bus.

This only applies if a seat is available and their child is aged between 16 and 19.

The minimum annual cost for a 'spare seat' from September would be £352, and the council is consulting on plans to increase this by two per cent each year.

If the child lives more than three miles away from their school, the annual cost would inflate to £658.

A father of a pupil at Fitzwaryn, a special school for children aged three-19, branded the plan 'ridiculous'.

The man, who asked to remain anonymous, said: "A lot of parents can't drive and a lot of people in wheelchairs don't necessarily have a mobility vehicle.

"There needs to be enough public outcry on this for [the council] to do a U-turn."

Suggesting the council could instead make efficiency savings, he added: "They need to get their own house in order before they start penalising parents and kids."

Gillian Stickings, whose 14-year-old daughter Judith goes to John Watson School in Wheatley, said she recognised the council was struggling on a 'shoestring' budget.

Judith has cerebral palsy and took free taxi transport to school, when the family lived in Risinghurst.

Following a move several years ago, the council removed the privilege as John Watson was no longer her nearest suitable school.

Mrs Stickings, who lives near Sonning Common in South Oxfordshire, said: "We would have preferred to still have transport but the important thing for us was to keep her at the school.

"Transport is an important thing and there are wider ramifications.

"But I do see the council has been progressively reduced to a shoestring over the last decade, and is having to provide so many services to an increasing population.

"Something has to give. It's really hard."

A statement on the council's consultation page states: "Unfortunately, given the continuing pressure on public finances, the council needs to critically consider whether it should continue to maintain spending on this non-statutory assistance."

Since 2010 the council has had to cut more than £300m from its budget and shed 30 per cent of its staff, including 40 per cent of its managers.

It has said it still needs to make £15m of cuts from now until 2022.

Lucy Butler, the council's director for children's services, added: "Unlike many other councils, Oxfordshire has provided free transport for post-16 students with an EHCP for many years, despite there being no national requirement to do so.

"The number of children receiving free school transport is continuing to grow, in line with Oxfordshire’s rising school-age population.

"We have to find ways of reducing the amount we spend as a whole in this area, which regrettably means considering whether we can continue to operate a policy which goes beyond our legal requirements."

The plan would not affect youngsters who attend residential special schools - the council would still provide free transport at the start and end of each term.

In some circumstances, where families can prove financial hardship, the council would still consider offering assistance.

To view the full plans and comment, visit consultations.oxfordshire.gov.uk by Monday, April 30.