‘PUNITIVE’ plans to make disabled youngsters pay for school transport have been passed despite emotional pleas from parents.

Oxfordshire County Council will press ahead with a controversial proposal to start charging for school transport for students aged 16 or older, who have special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). 

Currently they get transport to their nearest suitable school for free, but from September 2019 the council will bring in an annual per-pupil charge of between £352 and £658 depending on distance.

It says the change is in line with national guidelines and will save £330,000, but parents fear they will not be able to fork out and could have to sacrifice their jobs to arrange their own transport. 

The decision was made at an emotional cabinet meeting at County Hall this afternoon, which saw speaker David Mytton move listeners to tears as he became choked up explaining the needs of his disabled son. 

The father, who works in the council’s own legal team, said his 17-year-old son gets a taxi to Frank Wise School in Banbury, arranged and paid for by the council.

He said: “If transport was withdrawn, I don’t know how we would cope.”

Currently 130 families across the county use the service.

The new policy states that only low-income families will continue to have travel costs covered.

Others can apply for a government bursary but there is no guarantee, and they are competitive.

Mr Mytton said he would not qualify for financial help and could have to arrange alternative transport rather than pay, but said this would also cost hundreds of pounds in fuel.

His impassioned speech saw councillor Hilary Hibbert-Biles, cabinet member for public health and education, reduced to tears.

She later voted the proposal down alongside fellow cabinet member Mark Gray, suggesting there could be a better cost-cutting alternative working alongside special schools, but it was passed by a majority.

Parent Phillip Middlewood, father to two teenagers with learning disabilities, said the decision would 'almost certainly' mean either he or his wife would have to reduce their working hours to ensure their sons get to school. 

The council’s director for children’s services Lucy Butler stressed that no transport would be withdrawn, and the policy simply meant introducing a charge for those who can afford to pay.

She added: “No child will not be able to go to school because of this policy.”

She also countered parents’ concerns that the new policy only covers transport from home to school and back, and would not cover after-school clubs or respite care.

Ms Butler insisted the council will still support these journeys.

Speaking at the meeting, Labour county councillor Emma Turnbull branded the plan ‘ill-conceived, harmful and unnecessary’.

She accused the council of ‘a shameful and knowing disregard’ of the 2010 Equality Act and said the proposal was discriminatory.

She added: “The answer to squeezed budgets is not to make haphazard, punitive cuts to services for the vulnerable.”

The councillor added that the proposal had been ‘rushed through with no proper alternative investigated’.

Labour has instead suggested the council brings transport for affected pupils in-house to make efficiency savings.

Damian Haywood, a parent governor at Mabel Prichard School in Blackbird Leys and father to disabled son Matias, also urged councillors to reject the proposal.

The Oxford University research manager said: “My working week is on a knife’s edge currently, regarding the organisation of care and transport for Matias.

“If our transport option was curtailed in any way it would mean that someone [Mr Haywood or Matias' mother, a nurse at the John Radcliffe] would have to reduce their hours significantly.”

His petition against the plan has been signed by almost 2,500 people in the space of a few weeks.

Speaking after the meeting, he said he was 'incredibly upset and disappointed' that the plans were approved regardless, and said it seemed as though councillors 'did not fully understand the policy'.

Keep The Horton General campaigner Keith Strangwood also spoke out at the meeting, and said his daughter was only able to work full time thanks to the council arranging school transport for her disabled son.

He said if the plan went ahead, 'her life and my grandson's life will be turned on its head'. 

Hook Norton parent Jane Pargeter, a GP, also opposed the plan.

She described the transport offered to her 18-year-old son as 'the glue that holds all this together', ensuring he could get to school and she is able to work.

The mother added: "Without transport, it all unravels.

"These proposals will affect many children and families, who I would argue are the most vulnerable you look after."

Cabinet member David Bartholomew said he had been 'very moved listening to testimonies of speakers' but felt, having sought clarification from council officers, their concerns had been 'misplaced' based on a misunderstanding of the policy.

Cabinet member Steve Harrod added: "No child will be left on the side of the street...No child will be denied transport to school."

Addressing the cabinet, councillors John Howson and Michael Waine opposed the plan on behalf of the council's education scrutiny committee. 

Mr Waine said the council's report justifying the changes was 'crude and possibly heartless'. 

Prof Howson said he felt 'uneasy' about the wording of the policy, and the fact that there was no statutory requirement for free school transport for post-16 year-olds was 'an act of cowardice on the part of the government'.

City councillor Marie Tidball countered the council's defence that it has been going 'over and above' statutory requirements.

She said at the meeting: "This measure is not generous or a luxury, but is essential.

"The proposals will make consistent school attendance for SEND young people more difficult and reduce their independence."

The council has set up a new team to help students get access to the right transport and help improve their independence.