Over the past two years, my son was driven to and from his school everyday by a taxi service funded by the government. At the end of last year, we were told that the contract for these daily taxi trips was going to another company. The school itself had argued against the change; they were more than satisfied with the service they were already receiving and tried to make the relevant government department in control of the tendering process, understand that change of this type can cause great stress and anxiety for special kids. There was nothing wrong with the existing provider, the change would cause distress for vulnerable children, but still the tender process ran its course, and so the school was left hoping for the best.
Two Octobers ago, I shared with you the tale of the miscommunicated change in school taxi drivers that left me panicked, thinking my son was missing or abducted. It was an instance of the immense vulnerability we and our children have in this situation: We trust these drivers to safely carry high needs children from A to B, but it’s more than picking them up and dropping them off. It’s trusting that the driver has strong enough character and patience and problem-solving skills, to cope with very challenging high needs children, when the drivers have no training at all in this area. All they have to know to get the job, is how to drive. (And apparently their pay-packets reflect this expectation, I’ve been told the pay is very poor.)
They don’t understand why a severely autistic child, for instance, can’t just be dropped off at their home, they need to be physically handed over to a guardian. They don’t understand how to correctly deal with a non-verbal child that kicks and screams in the back of the taxi. They don’t understand why certain phrases and instructions mean nothing or can even be painful to the wrong set of ears.
I went out of my way to set up a personal relationship with the two long-term taxi drivers my son had, so I could try to fill these knowledge gaps, and try to make them care about my son as an individual and not just a package to be delivered (it would have been just one driver over the two years, but the original driver moved overseas). I’d talk to them about his behaviours and what he could and couldn’t understand, and how to help him calm down if he was acting up. I even gave them Christmas and thank you gifts, to cement that relationship. These couldn’t just be taxi drivers, I needed them to feel like they were more than just that, because they were more than just that.
So putting a taxi service up for tender – seeking the best price – strikes me as missing the point. In my eyes, that’s tendering a special relationship. So it’s even worse when I read that the contract recently tendered to a new company, apparently allows that company to then sub-contract out those services to other providers. That makes me think the tendering process wasn’t focused on the history or reliability of the company that would be providing the service, if they were given the power to then subcontract to whoever they might choose; it’s no longer a service provided by that specific company at that point. The end results of this subcontracting and of the companies that won the tenders in their own right, are beyond unacceptable.
My son no longer takes the taxi everyday to and from school, because he started at the local school this year (we literally walk across the road). What my son misses about those daily taxi trips, isn’t the trip itself, it was the man in the front seat. The man who knew about the other kid in the back of that taxi van that teased my son, and how to deal with it. The man who played “Dancing Queen” over and over in the taxi, because it made the kids so happy. The man who was sad to know he’d no longer get to see the kids he’d grown to care about.
How do you tender for that?
Money matters, yes. But so does what you get for that money. And when the school, and the students, and the families, all think the change in service provider is unnecessary and foreseeably damaging, it’s best to listen and weigh that very heavily in any tendering process. The consequences of getting it wrong are felt in the daily lives of vulnerable children and their families.
Our children are not just cargo, and their drivers were never just drivers.