Q&A: Suffolk education chief makes admission over controversial school transport changes

School bus changes have prompted an angry response from parents. Picture: R.A FOWLER

School bus changes have prompted an angry response from parents. Picture: R.A FOWLER

Suffolk’s education chief has said he has apologised to parents who have been directly in touch with him over school transport problems.

Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council cabinet member for childrens services, education and skills. P

Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council cabinet member for childrens services, education and skills. Picture: SIMON LEE PHOTOGRAPHY/SCC - Credit: Archant

Conservative councillor Gordon Jones made the admission while addressing a series of concerns during the first week of the council's new school transport policy.

The new policy, which only provides funded transport for youngsters whose nearest school is two miles away or more, has been introduced to save costs but has come under fire from parents.

Hundreds still did not have a pass at the start of the week, while problems with buses accepting passes has also been expressed on social media.

We put a series of questions to Mr Jones about the new policy.

Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for Childrens Services and Education at Suffolk County Council Pictu

Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for Childrens Services and Education at Suffolk County Council Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

This week you publicly stated that lessons have been learnt from this year - what lessons are these and what changes will be made going forward?

"It's right to evaluate any process to learn and improve it for the next time you need it and this is our standard practise.

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"We will look at how the process worked, the strengths and weaknesses of the system we have in place - particularly surrounding communications for parents."

Will you apologise to parents who have gone through the process correctly and still not received their pass (e.g. the ones who applied for spare seats on time but still haven't had their pass sorted in time for the start of school)?

"I have done this directly to those who have been in touch with me. Each case is different and has its own circumstances.

"I have publicly acknowledged the frustrations of families who are still waiting to hear the outcome of their spare seat application.

"Our statutory responsibility is to ensure that every entitled student gets SCC-funded school travel. Spare seats are offered where there is surplus capacity, therefore the council is unable to process these applications until applications for entitled students have been processed.

"GCSE results also have a significant bearing on the allocation of spare seats.

"SCC is not required to offer spare seats and we know that other local authorities do not offer the service of spare seats at all."

Do you accept that the implementation of the new policy has not been as good as it should have been?

"Others will have you believe it wasn't because it fits their own political agenda.

"As I have said, there are always lessons to learn and we will do this as part of the review process."

We know there was one additional member of staff processing applications than previous years. Do you believe that more resources should have been put in place given it was a year of policy change and some issues or extra work should have been anticipated?

"I have been reassured that the team is adequately staffed, and they are working hard to deal with the process as they do every year.

"I trust them to ensure there is the correct level of resource in place to manage the applications we receive."

You have said that many spare seat applications could not be processed until after GCSE results. Given there were still 152 outstanding as of the beginning of the week from people who applied on time, and the council was aware it would only be able to do so after that date, should more resource have been put in after that date to ensure these were completed?

"We can have no way of knowing how many people may choose to apply late or very late after the deadline.

"We have additional resource this year and that was the right approach to take."

For parents who have been left without a pass or organised school travel for the start of term, were they contacted directly to say they should make alternative arrangements, and if not why not?

"As part of the process parents need to upload a photo of their child onto the system and I accept that perhaps communications informing parents to do this could have been clearer, but that doesn't take away from the fact that it is the parent's responsibility to ensure their child gets to school.

"The majority of parents successfully uploaded their photos as required but as part of the review we are looking at how the process for communications with parents could be improved."

For parents who plan to claim compensation or costs because they have had to transport their kids to school while waiting for a pass/spare seat etc, how will this be funded by the council? Will it come out of council reserves for instance?

"The terms and conditions of spare seats outline the refund policy.

"Parents tick to say they have read the terms and conditions when they apply for a spare seat."

Given the number of late applications received, do you believe the council communicated the process and deadlines effectively enough?

"Communications began from 12 September 2018 with information being provided to parents of existing pupils, informing them of the policy change and the need to opt-in for school travel for 2019/2020.

"Communications were also included as part of the admissions process for both secondary and primary.

"This included; press releases, social media, info provided by schools and early years providers, websites, parish councils etc.

"Communications for opt-in started at the end of January.

"Communications took place throughout February, March, April and May about the deadline to opt-in.

"Information was available on;

Suffolk County Council website

Suffolk County Council social media

Suffolk onboard website

Suffolk onboard social media

Every school in Suffolk was given messages to pass on to parents

Parish councils were informed and asked to pass on information

Press releases

Suffolk onboard newsletters

All members of staff in children and young people's services who go into schools were briefed

Social work teams for vulnerable children were briefed

Contact centres were briefed

Facebook posts: We did four targeted Facebook campaigns over February, March, April and May.

"Via one of our Facebook posts on 27th February we reached just under 10,000 profiles in one week. There were 411 people who engaged with us and 77 people clicked through to the website for more details.

Four press releases were issued;

January - to launch the opt-in campaign

March - after allocation of secondary school places to remind people to opt-in for their travel

April - after allocation of primary school places to remind people to opt-in for their travel

May - reminder to apply before the deadline of 31 May."

The new policy has been vehemently opposed by Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott, who said the concerns of parents should be addressed.

"I think it is clear to all rational observers that this new policy and its implementation has been a total shambles," he said.

"I find it extraordinary that the cabinet member responsible for this mess is still refusing to apologise, continues to blame parents and now accuses them of having an agenda.

"To completely disregard the genuine concerns of thousands of families in this manner shows how out of touch he and his colleagues are on this issue.

"A responsible, empathetic administration would not continue to behave in this way.

"This has been allowed to spiral completely out of control and children and families have paid a heavy price.

"Enough is enough. If Cllr Jones won't, someone else needs to step up and resolve this crisis."