Report criticises way home to school transport changes introduced in Essex
Parents say an official report criticising the way changes to home-school transport were introduced in Essex does not go far enough.
A number of parents were caught out by the changes, which they either were unaware of or because of a lack of clarity in how the distance from home to school was measured.
This meant they took a school place ineligible for free transport, costing them hundreds of pounds a year in bus fares.
In a handful of cases assessed by the Local Government Ombudsman (LGO), a council watchdog, some catchment schools were less than half a mile further away than the nearest school, and in one case there was just 176 yards’ difference – less than two hockey pitches.
From last September Essex County Council only pays for transport to a child’s nearest school with places – provided they live more than three miles away (aged 8-16) or two miles away (under eights) – instead of to the catchment school.
The change was introduced to save money, an estimated £238,000 a year, and to make the system fairer as previously some parents could choose from a number of schools with free transport while others had no choice. Existing recipients of funding were unaffected.
The LGO considered four specific cases in its report, and recommended Essex County Council pay two parents £300 each towards the additional money they have had to pay for bus fares.
It also recommended a third parent – who has a special needs child and is a foster carer – be given a fresh appeal in their case asking for exceptional circumstances to allow funding. This has been agreed by County Hall.
Further changes to the wording and how the policy is displayed on school admissions advice has also been suggested.
Scott Wilson, from Essex Against School Transport Cuts, said: “We welcome the report which has found against Essex County Council in several key aspects, notably that injustices have been committed in the introduction of its restrictions.
“But we don’t think the report goes far enough. The LGO should have called on the council to suspend the policy until it can look at ways of re-instating affordable transport to catchment schools.”
Towns and villages across Essex have been affected and Essex Against School Transport Cuts says in some areas pupils are going to five schools in three towns instead of one traditional catchment school.
Ann Hooks, from the Rayne protest group, added: “Although Rayne welcomes the report, we are unhappy as the ruling does not help with the financial hardship families now find themselves in.
“Many parents already have children receiving free transport and it is unfair and unjust to expect parents to choose a different school due to the council’s shortsightedness of its new policy.”
Dr Jane Martin, Local Government Ombudsman, said: “Selecting the most appropriate school for a child is an important decision so it is essential parents are given clear information.
“I am pleased Essex County Council has accepted some of my recommendations, and would now call on it to agree to the rest of the actions to remedy what went wrong.”
The parents and schools involved have not been named.
Ray Gooding, county councillor for education, said: “The ombudsman has found no fault with the consultation or decision-making process by which the policy was brought in.
“The report also recognises information about the changes were published and available to parents when making their applications for places.
“We are always keen to learn from feedback and had already implemented some of the recommendations in the report prior to its receipt.
“The report does not alter the basis of the policy and there are no plans to change the criteria for school transport.”