Suffolk families told they will only learn about school transport after term starts
- Credit: Archant
Parents in Suffolk have been told the county council is unable to deal with new applications for places on school transport buses before the start of term next month.
Some say they have been told they will have to drive their children to their chosen school while officials at the council issue bus passes - even though the council officially says it will be sorted out by the start of term.
And there is ongoing resentment about changes to school transport arrangements which are seeing siblings being sent to different schools - or parents having to pay out for bus passes for one of their children.
However the council's cabinet member for education, Gordon Jones, said: "Of the thousands of applications we have received, 88% have already been processed and the remaining applications are in the system."
Campaigner Emma Bishton, who lives in Nayland, said she knew of one family who were told their child would have to go to the nearest school in Hadleigh even though other children in the village were going to Sudbury.
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Emma Deacon, from Brent Eleigh, has been sent passes for two of her three children - one to go to Lavenham Primary and one for the Thomas Gainsborough School in Great Cornard.
However she has also applied for a seat for her other child who starts at Thomas Gainsborough in September even though Ormiston Sudbury is technically closer to their home. When she contacted the council she was told this third pass would not be decided until the schools had started.
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Mrs Deacon said:"I was dumbfounded, how can that be? If the cut off [for applications] was the 31st May why does it take until mid-August to know how many spare seats they are going to need?
"They don't seem to have the administration staff to do it. I am completely shell-shocked so now I am going to have to change everything around. My 11-year-old daughter is devastated she can't go on the bus with her older sister."
The county is expecting to process about 1,800 new bus passes - but nearly 220 families are still waiting to hear if they will get places for their children on school transport.
The county council refused to discuss any individual cases - but Mr Jones added: "The allocation of spare seats is difficult to confirm before the academic summer break because an allowance needs to be made for post-16 entitled students and, despite making an application, their requirements cannot be confirmed until they receive their GCSE results. This happens every year.
"Suffolk County Council is doing all that it can to ensure all school and post-16 travel arrangements are in place for the start of the new academic year. As outlined in the application process, we aim to announce these by the end of August."
Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for education at Suffolk County Council, said: "This is turning into a real disaster. Just a few weeks before the start of term, many families are still in the dark, some have received the wrong bus passes and now there are parents who have been told that they won't hear before school starts in September.
"As a direct result of this shambolic implementation of an already deeply flawed policy, parents are going to have to miss work to drive to school, or children are going to miss out on their education.
"What are parents supposed to do? They have warned about the problems, desperately sought help and absolutely nothing has changed.
"I don't know whether the Tory cabinet member for education responsible has given up, or whether he simply doesn't care - frankly, it makes little difference at this stage. Someone just needs to urgently get a grip of the situation and avert this crisis."
Controversial new policy aims to save millions from county's budget
The new policy is coming in for the first time from next month - saying that free school transport will be only available to pupils attending the nearest school to their home (if it is more than three miles from home), not necessarily to their catchment school.
The full effect of the changes will take seven years to come through as it will not affect pupils already at school - but it does mean that some siblings could be forced to attend different schools.
Suffolk County Council says the changes will eventually save £5.8m a year - and will save £40m over the first 10 years of its implementation as it is phased in.
However the changes prompted an outcry among parents and from some schools that faced losing many of their potential pupils because of the changes - Thurston Community College faces particular problems because many of its students live nearer to other schools, even though it has been their catchment area school for generations.