THE number of Wirral children and young people given a statement assessing them as having special educational needs should be reduced, says a firm of consultants hired to cut council costs.
Their controversial recommendation came with another proposal - that more special needs youngsters should attend mainstream classes instead of going to specialised schools.
Wirral Council has committed itself to reducing special needs transport costs by £564,000 by 2020.
The authority brought in London-based management consultancy firm iMPOWER to examine their figures.
They discovered the savings target could not be achieved by reducing transport costs alone.
The consultants said the high demand for special needs transport – more than 1,200 young people - is “being driven” by a statementing rate 20% above neighbouring councils.
Their report, to be presented to the families and wellbeing committee next week, says to make a “step change” the council should adopt a “bolder” approach to special educational needs statements - an assessment by education professionals detailing a child's learning difficulties and stating help that will be given.
By cutting numbers in receipt of a statement and bringing it in line with the rest of Merseyside, one-fifth of Wirral's transport budget could be saved.
The report tells officers: “If you implement demand management and reduce numbers in line with statistical neighbours, your financial target can be exceeded.”
It also says if more special needs pupils – especially those with moderate learning difficulties - were educated at their local mainstream school, it would not only reduce the mileage rate costs but would also increase the number of “feasible transport options.”
This would have a “positive impact” on the council’s finances.
The review found transport cost per pupil is low, but because so many receive free transport to school, the overall cost is considerably above average.
The report goes on: "Due to the high number of specialist schools in Wirral, the majority of the budget is spent on transporting pupils to these schools."
It states that in order to meet target savings, the demand for special needs schools "has to be addressed. and the broader challenge is to address the source of the demand."
Wirral has a 20% higher rate of special educational needs than its neighbours and 14% higher than England and the North West.
Twenty-one per 1,000 Wirral school pupils attend specialist schools - which is 77% higher than the England average.
Ten per cent of all Wirral schools are specialist schools, compared with 4% for England.
IMPOWER said: "These figures suggest that unlike other areas of the country, Wirral’s mainstream schools are not educating pupils with SEN to the same extent.
"The comparatively high supply of specialist provision means that some pupils are not attending their nearest school.
"If they were, and with parental support, they may be able to travel to school without the need for specialist transport."
The review divides parents of statemented children into three "Value Mode Groups."
They are: "Pioneer", "Prospector" and "Settler".
The consultants said "Prospectors" expressed the highest level of interest in alternatives to the present system, while "Settlers" showed the least.
Key recommendations are that the council should introduce "Independent Travel Training" which will increase a pupil's independence; investigate setting up Personal Transport Budgets, and bring in a system known as "Structured Contact", wherby a child's transport needs are "challenged at all stages" and alternative options explored.
Councillors will discuss the findings next Tuesday.
IMPOWER's website explains "the company’s mission is to reshape the public sector to deliver sustainable and fit for purpose services in a modern environment. "
You can read their 40-page Wirral report here.