School bus changes may improve services in part of Suffolk, says council

Gordon Jones said the county council needed to cut the cost of school transport. Picture: JAMES FLET

Gordon Jones said the county council needed to cut the cost of school transport. Picture: JAMES FLETCHER - Credit: Archant

Proposals to reduce the number of school bus services for pupils across Suffolk could give residents of rural areas better access to services, the county council has said.

The county is planning to reduce the number of dedicated school buses taking pupils to schools that are not the nearest to their homes in a bid to help cut the £3m overspend on Suffolk’s school transport budget.

But Cabinet member for young people Gordon Jones said the changes could encourage bus companies to run services that were available to both school pupils and the general public – giving residents of rural parts of the county more choice.

At present many of the buses are “closed services,” only used by schoolchildren, but if they were withdrawn bus companies might replace them with services available to all.

Or parents and schools could work together to provide alternative services. Mr Jones said: “This will be an opportunity for schools or parents to do whatever is appropriate in each individual case.”

He said that most Suffolk pupils, 88%, did not use school transport. And those who used statutory transport would be unaffected by the changes.

At present there are 3,700 pupils – about 3.5% of the state school population – who could be affected by the changes which would come in from September 2019.

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A two-month consultation period on the changes is due to start next month and last until just before Christmas.

It will mainly affect rural schools – although there are particular issues in Bury St Edmunds – and Mr Jones accepted that there would be concern among some parents and schools.

He said: “It will be worrying for some people but we will be listening and we will be working closely with parents and schools to make it work as well as we can.”

Some schools had initially had concerns but were now coming around to the idea that the system could work – while others still had to hear the full implications of the plan.

There were some areas of the county where the changes could be particularly significant like east Suffolk where there is currently an over-supply of school places because of the establishment of new free schools over recent years.

Transport to faith schools is not likely to be affected greatly.

School catchment areas are becoming a thing of the past in Suffolk

The changes to school transport are a further indication that the traditional catchment area is disappearing in Suffolk, Mr Jones said.

He said that as more parents were now choosing which school they wanted their children to go to, it was becoming outdated: “Increasingly catchment areas are not as important – some academies put more emphasis on pupils coming from their own partner schools rather than catchment areas.”

Upper Gipping councillor Andrew Stringer, whose division includes villages to the north of Stowmarket, said parents were worried because in some cases their catchment school was not the nearest to their homes – and feared children could be stuck.

He said: “In parts of Old Newton, they’re in the Stowupland catchment, but Stowmarket High is nearer – and in Finningham Stowupland is the catchment school but Hartismere in Eye is actually nearer.”

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