THE rising number of children requiring an education and healthcare plan (EHCP) has put huge pressure on Northumberland’s school transport budget, officers have said.

Northumberland County Council is facing an overspend of almost £1 million on the cost of special education needs and disabilities (SEND) transport. There are currently 407 routes across the county, transporting 1,738 pupils and escorts.

The number of children in Northumberland requiring an education and healthcare plan (EHCP) rose from 1,679 in 2017 to 3,369 in 2023 – doubling in just six years.

READ MORE: County council leader to appeal for more SEND funding

Speaking at Thursday’s meeting (May 16) of the council’s family and children’s services scrutiny committee, executive director Audrey Kingham explained that the issue was one faced by councils across the country. However, Northumberland faced additional challenges due to its rural nature.

She said: “Northumberland has overspent with SEND transport as has every council in the country. It is a national issue.

“The challenging budget is due to the increase of EHCP pupils. We have a statutory responsibility to provide that transport and the money comes from Northumberland County Council – we have to provide that.

“Our additional challenge is being a large rural county.”

The home to school transport system is currently being looked at as part of the council’s BEST scheme, which is looking to ensure services are delivered effectively and efficiently. Ms Kingham outlined the changes this was making.

She continued: “Particularly looking at SEND, we want to meet children’s needs much closer to home rather than travelling around the county to access provision. In the Coquet Partnership now we have Barndale by the Sea which means that fewer children will have to leave the partnership for their education.”

Senior manager of education development Neil Doward also explained the council’s independent travel scheme. This will see 'independent travel trainers' support travel independence for young people with SEND.

The trainers will develop 'skills and confidence where it is identified that the potential to use public transport or walking to school may be achievable'.

Mr Doward said: “Independent travel training is a big part of that. We’re working on the ground with parents, carers and special schools.

“We recognise that every single young person is unique and their circumstances are unique.”

However, Cllr Angie Scott, who has a son with autism who has to travel long distances for his education, had concerns about the workability of the scheme.

She said: “It is really interesting, but when we’re looking at independent travel it is impossible for a child in the west to access education in Morpeth. They can’t get there because of a lack of transport and the link-up is very difficult.

“When a child travels miles to get to school, they’re not included in their own communities. The transport links from Prudhoe to Blyth or Morpeth are impossible.”