You may have seen this story all over social media and news channels back in March; mum Leanna Forse was forced to give up her job because she couldn’t afford to pay for her son Billy’s school transport every day.
Here, Leanna tells the whole story to My Family, Our Needs, including how hard she had to fight the system and what she hopes for the future.
Back to the beginning
When you’re pregnant, you expect that you have a few years of nappy-changing ahead of you, that you will be doing school runs for another few years. You don’t expect your child to have a disability that will require you to do everything for them for the rest of their life.
When Billy was born, I knew that something wasn’t right and so the fights began. Aged 8, Billy was diagnosed with a unique chromosome disorder. He needs someone to do even the most basic tasks for him: washing, brushing teeth, eating, drinking etc. I love Billy. He might be non-verbal but he has a wicked sense of humour. He’s funny and loving and gives the best smiles and biggest cuddles. I’m biased but he is the most fantastic child I have ever met.
Finding our own routine
Initially, I took Billy to school myself. When we moved house, we were eligible for county school transport. This gave me a chance to work full-time because I suddenly had the leeway each morning and afternoon to get to work. I was already working part-time but now I could start at the same time as everyone else and Billy could have some independence and get to the school he loved.
During this time, I worked as a teaching assistant and I ran a couple of youth clubs. Within a couple of years, I decided to complete a degree and my teacher training. It wasn’t easy (I’d left school at 16) but knowing I was doing it for Billy and a decent future for all of us, I persevered. By the time Billy was 11, I was fully qualified, teaching English in a secondary school. I began to pay for carers in the morning because I needed to leave for work at 8.00am and Billy didn’t get picked up until 8.30am. I also paid for Billy to attend after-school club for three afternoons a week so I could attend meetings, parents’ evenings and complete admin. Once Billy was in bed, I continued with schoolwork and caught up with any correspondence about Billy’s needs. On the evenings that Billy was at after-school club, I would pick him up myself. We continued like this. Billy’s transport acted like a building block that supported us in having what other parents might call a ‘normal’ life. I’m a single mum but I am lucky to have a support network around me. Unfortunately, even this support wasn’t enough when Billy turned 16.
Post-16 school transport for children with SEND is discretionary. New policies put in place just before Billy’s 16th birthday meant that we would have to apply for post-16 transport and that we might not get it. If Billy had been born a year earlier, this wouldn’t have been a problem. Our County Council will provide transport post-16 in ‘exceptional circumstances only’ and even then, you have to pay for it. I told them I was happy to pay the annual charge. I thought we would be ok: nothing had changed. We still lived the same distance from the college as we did from the school. Billy still had a severe disability; it wasn’t like he could get himself to school and even with someone with him, buses make him anxious and this causes him to self-harm. Obviously, he couldn’t wheel himself to school – he can’t propel his wheelchair by himself. He wouldn’t even be able to ask for help. If I took him to college myself, I would miss huge parts of the school day and this would affect my ability to be a good teacher. In fact, I wouldn’t really be able to teach at all.
I thought we would be okay. We weren’t.
Fighting the system
The County Council refused to provide Billy’s transport. My stress levels went up instantaneously. I knew we had another fight on our hands. We appealed; they said no. We took it to the Local Government Ombudsman, who found in our favour but his hands were tied and could only ask the Council to refer the case back to the appeal panel (the same three panel members that denied our appeal in the first place). So the waiting game began again.
In the meantime, I was paying £500 each month for Billy to have a private taxi and escort. I was paying extra for the carers in the morning because the taxi couldn’t pick Billy up until later each morning. All of this, on top of the after-school fees. I was paying well over £1,000 every term just so I could go to work. This did not include any of the extra expenses parents of disabled children have to pay out for. I looked into every option but it was no good. Nothing would have worked and it would have caused much more stress than I could handle. I’m a strong person but this was breaking me.
We fought. We had so much support. A local charity, Embrace, was with us every step of our 8- month long journey. I was even invited to talk about my experiences in Parliament. We fought and pleaded with the County Council to help us. If they took away that building block, our lives would fall down.
It all fell on deaf ears. They refused.
I handed in my notice at the start of March. I love my job but I love Billy more. I will find a job that I can work around Billy’s school day. I have plans, one door closes and another opens, right? I am still going to fight. This is happening across the UK to other parents of disabled children. Things need to change.
Are you facing similar struggles with your child’s school transport? We know that Leanna’s story probably isn’t unique so we have an article coming up soon from school transport expert Nabil Dance. Keep an eye out if you need some advice and guidance.
Contact a Family
Provides information and resources for families with disabled children
Independent Parental Special Education Advice (IPSEA)
Has a frequently asked questions factsheet for parents about school and college transport.