Controversial school transport plans agreed by Suffolk County Council cabinet
PUBLISHED: 19:49 19 June 2018 | UPDATED: 08:53 20 June 2018
Divisive plans to make cuts on free school transport in Suffolk have been given the go-ahead - but proposals for the decision to be reassessed have already been voiced.
Recommendations were put forward to the county council’s cabinet to adopt option two - a phased introduction of cutbacks over seven years which will mean that free school transport will only be available to pupils’ nearest school, not others in the catchment area.
A lengthy consultation featured more than 3,600 responses, including a petition signed by 8,600 people against the plans.
Despite more than 70% of respondents being strongly against the recommendation, the decision went ahead yesterday afternoon.
Education portfolio holder Gordon Jones said: “We listened to the consultation feedback and I acknowledge the majority who responded wanted the policy to stay the same, but without details of where the additional funding would be sourced.
“We couldn’t bury our heads in the sand and force other SCC services to take bigger cuts than they are already managing.”
Several cabinet members said the lessons from Northamptonshire council’s finances loomed large, with council leader Matthew Hicks adding that it would be “dangerous” to ignore the need to save money.
Dozens of public speakers quizzed Mr Jones on the matter, with key issues being raised including the extent to which the changes would save money, the impact on pupil numbers and whether the public had been adequately listened to.
Schools such as Thurston Community College, which is set to be most affected, have already raised concerns over the impact on school funding, parental choice and the loss of pupils.
Headteacher Helen Wilson said: “We are disappointed and frustrated – disappointed because this policy change will have a detrimental impact on children’s education and as head teachers across Suffolk we have repeatedly warned the council of the devastating effect this policy will have. Our next stage is to regroup, we accept that decision with dignity and grace and we couldn’t have done any more to make our views known. Now we will work together as we have done all along to do our best for all our students, present and future.”
Opposition councillors reaction
Andrew Stringer, leader of the Liberal Democrat, Greens and Independent group said: “I cannot believe the Conservative cabinet agreed these changes on such a weak business case. Given the fact that more children are likely to be injured or worse as a direct result of this move, we urge a rethink.”
Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott described the whole process as “farcical from start to finish”.
He said: “Today was an embarrassing spectacle with a number of questions being left unanswered and cabinet members grandstanding with pre-written statements, many of which had little to do with the matter at hand.
“Councillor Hicks’ first act as leader has been to rush through a policy with more holes in it than a sieve.”
He added: “This fight is not over and we will continue to stand up for the schools and families of Suffolk.”
The main points of the recommendations agreed by the cabinet were outlined by Gordon Jones in his speech. These include:
• Providing children aged 4-16 years old with transport to their nearest school with an available place, but phasing in the policy from September 2019. This would only apply to children starting a new school, or moving home, and would be based on the current minimum distance criteria.
• Providing travel for 4 year olds, known as ‘rising 5s’.
• Giving priority to Suffolk schools, allowing those whose nearest school is over the county boundary the option to choose transport to their nearest Suffolk school if they meet the criteria.
• Requiring parents whose children qualify for funded travel to opt in each year.
• Offering students who are nearest to a three-tier school the option of travel to the nearest two-tier school, if they meet the criteria
• Retain the current Post-16 travel policy