Suffolk's new education committee look at school transport and Covid impact
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
A dedicated group to scrutinise education issues in Suffolk is to be formed in the new year - with the impact of Covid-19, controversial school transport changes and children's mental health likely to be on the to-do list.
Suffolk County Council's education scrutiny committee was dissolved in 2017, but the authority's full council meeting has now agreed to re-form that group following recommendations made by the council's main scrutiny committee and backed by the constitution working party.
It aims to ensure that key issues around education and children's services receive adequate assessment publicly. Among those which councillors have said need reviewing are:
- The impact of Covid-19 on children's education
- Controversial changes to Suffolk's home to school transport policy
- Performance of academy chains
- Mental health services for children
- Progress with investment in special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)
Other issues which have emerged in Suffolk include exclusion rates of SEND pupils and pupils being off-rolled - an illegal practice where parents are encouraged by schools to home-educate their child so as not to bring down the school's results.
Councillor Sarah Adams, leader of the opposition Labour group, said her party had consistently called for the group to be reformed, and said it was "absolutely and painfully necessary at this time".
Labour's spokesman for children's services, Jack Abbott added: "It’s obviously frustrating that this u-turn has taken so long, with repeated excuses for inaction meaning that important issues such as school transport, mental health provision and the impact of Covid on children and young people have not received the consistent attention they need."
Several councillors called for the policy on home to school transport to be among the first items reviewed, and in particular the number of appeals it has generated.
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Councillor Penny Otton from the opposition Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group said there had been a "serious vacuum for scrutiny to look at issues directly related to children and young people, and in particular education".
While the new committee has been welcomed by the Conservative administration, leader Matthew Hicks and deputy leader Mary Evans both stressed that those education issues had not been ignored during that time.
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Avenues for scrutiny since 2017 included the SEND Oversight Board, Ofsted, a "deep-dive" into exclusion rates by officers and the main scrutiny committee itself which has looked at the implementation of the new school transport policy and children's centre changes among other things.
Conservative cabinet member for children's services and education, Mary Evans, said: "I hope we have a very, very, strong committee that's supportive and works with focus.
"It's not as if we haven't got councillors from both opposition and the administration already working, but that's more behind the scenes and what we want is that public scrutiny of children's services by Suffolk and for Suffolk."
She added: "I think it would be brilliant if we had someone from the parent carer network or youth parliament to give that view, and that focus, from being a young person in Suffolk and being a parent in Suffolk."
The final terms of reference must now be drawn up and members appointed, but will include councillors from across the political groups as well as two co-opted parent governors and two representatives from the Diocese.