Wales

Escorts 'essential' to take disabled children to school

A disabled button on a bus Image copyright Getty Images

Every day Emma watches her son go to school in a taxi worried about what will happen to him. When the car slows down at traffic lights, the 13-year-old, who does not talk or walk, will often punch himself in the face out of frustration.

But Emma, like many in her position, relies on the escort who accompanies her son school to make sure he is safe.

She is among several parents of disabled children who contacted BBC Wales, worried about the potential loss of escort services, such as that in Bridgend, as councils try to make savings.

"The escort distracts him with toys and sometimes needs to physically hold his hands to prevent him from causing himself harm," she said.

"The service isn't just important - it's absolutely essential."

Councils have a duty to provide home-to-school transport for disabled children, but there is no statutory requirement to provide escorts to sit with those who need one-to-one support on the journey, who are hired by taxi companies contracted by the council.

Local authorities say they pick up hundreds of children every year, with all escorts being DBS checked and that issues are rare, but parents have spoken of problems with a lack of training, concerns over safety, criminal record checks and last-minute changes which see strangers turning up to take their child to school.

However, some parents said escorts and drivers needed more training.

Single mum Lisa lives in Swansea with her daughter who has autism and social anxiety. She started using a taxi to go to a specialist school with an escort when she was 14.

Lisa said, while some taxi drivers and escorts were good, others made her daughter's anxiety worse.

"She would get to school in a far worse state than when she was in the house," she said, "they would turn up late, or not at all sometimes.

"Sometimes a different escort or driver would arrive, or they don't turn up at all - you're just sat watching the clock. One turned up at 07:00 GMT to get her there for 09:30, as soon as they started banging on the door she started having a meltdown."

Lisa said she withdrew her daughter from the taxi service when one of the drivers behaved inappropriately, talking about his relationship and asking about her love life.

"If it hadn't have been for the escort in the car I don't know how much worse it would have been, as much as they can cause a problem they can keep things calm and more importantly keep our children safe."

"If they take a taxi and there is only the driver there, there is a risk of something happening to the children. It is essential to have another adult there for the safety of everyone."

Sue - not her real name - has started working part-time to take her son to school after withdrawing him from school transport after learning the driver had been sent to prison.

Her son, now nine, has autism and started using the service when he was three.

But Sue became concerned about bullying and safety issues and learning of the conviction was the final straw.

Image copyright Getty Images

She said escorts had called him a "nightmare to his face", so that he questioned if something was wrong with him, and last-minute changes often saw strangers turning up to take him to school, sending him into a "meltdown".

"They will turn up with no knowledge of my son, they would have no car seat, and expect them to let me go in a taxi with them," she added.

Sue said she once refused to let him go with a driver she feared was under the influence and another escort was elderly and had cataracts so could not properly see what the children were doing.

"The people coming to the door do not know anything about him and his needs, they turn up in the morning, sometimes it is a totally different person bringing them home," she added.

She added: "They need to have proper training; a lot of parents take their children out of the service, because they don't feel it is suitable...there is a safety element, sometimes they try to open the doors and get out of a moving car."

In response, Swansea council said it transported 700 children a year at a cost of £4m and all drivers and escorts had enhanced DBS checks and that parents were encouraged to highlight concerns.

"We take this service very seriously to ensure the young people and the parents involved have the service they need," a spokesman said.

"Additional measures in place in Swansea include a dedicated monitoring service which allows us to check all aspects of the service at the journey, origin, destination and on route - this will include ensuring the vehicle is clean, in good condition, licensed and the driver and that the passenger assistant are who we expect them to be.

"We also check that the pupils are travelling on the correct routes."

More on this story