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School transport cuts are ‘rural discrimination’ says Thurston Community College headteacher as parents protest plans

PUBLISHED: 17:47 12 September 2017 | UPDATED: 17:47 12 September 2017

Helen Wilson, principal of Thurston Community College (left). Picture: Pagepix Ltd.

Helen Wilson, principal of Thurston Community College (left). Picture: Pagepix Ltd.

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Parents and teachers are preparing to fight cuts to school transport in the Thurston catchment area, as claims it amounts to discrimination against Suffolk’s rural communities.

Thurston Community College. Picture: GREGG BROWN Thurston Community College. Picture: GREGG BROWN

Yesterday saw a group of pupils and parents walk more than six miles, taking two hours, from Felsham to Thurston Community College in protest against planned cutbacks.

The protestors have the full support of Thurston headteacher Helen Wilson, who claimed the school would have to cut £1.4million from its education budget to fund transport.

Mrs Wilson said: “They would be denying pupils and parents in Thurston catchment the freedom to choose their school.

“88% of pupils may already make their own way to school, but we are a rural school serving more than 75 villages.

Helen Wilson at the opening of the new Thurston Community College sixth form in 2014. Picture: GREGG BROWN Helen Wilson at the opening of the new Thurston Community College sixth form in 2014. Picture: GREGG BROWN

“People living in 45 of those villages will be affected by the changes. Why should we use a budget meant to educate children – and provide a good start in life once they get inside the school gates – and spend it transporting them to the school.”

She said the policy of sending a child only to their nearest school represented a broken promise made by the council when they ended three-tier schooling.

The policy would mean an estimated 812 students would no longer be able to attend Thurston school and get their transport funded.

“In my opinion this is rural discrimination,” she said. “Why should those who happen to live in our towns have the freedom to choose without the extra issue of cost.

“I have had hundreds of emails from parents who are really concerned about it. One from parents in Great Barton, who quite rightly pointed out that is not their fault the new school [Sybil Andrews Academy] was built nearer to them.”

The majority of Thurston catchment students affected by the proposals would only get transport to Ixworth Free School.

In a letter to parents, Mrs Wilson wrote: “I would like to reassure you that Thurston Community College is arguing vigorously that this consultation should not proceed and that the current travel arrangements should remain.”

She called on the council to make exceptions to the “one school” policy for rural schools.

Consultation

Suffolk County Council is to hold a two-month consultation over the future of home to school transport, starting next month.

Its cabinet agreed to the consultation – which could lead to the loss of free transport for thousands of families across the county from 2019 – after a long discussion at its meeting on Tuesday.

Much of the concern about the changes did come from the Thurston area, and local Liberal Democrat councillor Penny Otten said the changes flew in the face of promises made during the Schools’ Organisation Review process which saw three-tier schools changed to a two-tier system over the last decade.

However cabinet member for children and young people, Gordon Jones, said the issue being debated was to start the consultation process – nothing has so far been decided. He pointed out that 88% of Suffolk schoolchildren already made their own way to school and it was necessary to cut transport bills.

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