School bus decisions won’t be made until the 11th hour, say concerned parents
- Credit: Archant
Parents have raised fresh questions about controversial changes to school transport, as some families say they will not find out if their child has a solution until just days before school starts.
Cost pressures on Suffolk County Council has meant a new home to school transport policy will begin from September, with youngsters only receiving subsidised transport if their nearest school is two miles away or more.
The council has offered parents the opportunity to buy spare seats on buses at a cost of £750 per year, but parents have said they will only find out in mid-to-late August, leaving them no time to source alternatives if they are not successful.
Emma Deacon, who is waiting to hear whether her bid has been successful, said: it was "utterly appalling" and added: "All pupils, eligible or not, had to opt in by 31st May, so Suffolk County Council know the exact number of pupils eligible.
"I have been told by school transport that we may not hear until September, so I am unable to make any plans for anything ahead of September as I do not know if I will need to drive or not."
A number of frustrated parents put questions to both the cabinet and full council meetings last week, with the village of Nayland coming under particular criticism where two pupils are not considered eligible for Thomas Gainsborough School.
Tanya Page from Nayland, whose child has a place at Thomas Gainsborough said: "We can see the bus stop that would take [my son] there from our house, but my address is now considered nearer to Hadleigh High School.
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"It is absolutely clear that I cannot send him to a different school to his friends, as it is not in his interests.
"However, I don't have a car, so I can't drive him, and I can't afford to pay for a spare seat on the bus on a termly basis, as my partner and I are on a limited wage and need to pay in instalments."
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Conservative cabinet member for education Gordon Jones has offered to meet with parents in specific circumstances, but parent campaigner Emma Bishton said: "It's important to note that these are problems directly caused by the policy - and which the council could solve overnight.
"But instead Gordon Jones is refusing to listen to parents' concerns. Up until now he has been responding to questions about the policy by suggesting that 'local solutions' could be brokered.
"Faced with more questions this week, he has resorted to either responding with irrelevant information, avoiding the actual questions, or offering individual meetings instead of answering to the public."
Addressing the issue of August responses to spare seats, Mr Jones said: "Applications for spare seats will be processed when all the seats for eligible children whose families have opted in have been allocated and those who have applied for post-16 travel.
"We expect spare seat applications to be processed in August. Families should be aware that we cannot of course guarantee that a spare seat will be available."
On the issue of split villages, he added: "The changes to the school travel policy were implemented to ensure consistency across Suffolk.
"Due to the new policy being phased in, it was identified as part of the financial modelling that there would be changes to a number of pupils that were eligible which could result in smaller numbers at first travelling in new directions to those historically.
"These numbers would grow gradually over the next five years. The passenger transport team is required to arrange contracts in the most efficient and cost effective way possible, and smaller vehicles could be used in the first few years if there was not already another vehicle in the local area that was being used."
Jack Abbott, Labour education spokesman called for more to be done to support those families.
"Councillor Jones and his Tory colleagues were repeatedly warned about the obvious flaws in their school transport policy, yet these concerns were completely ignored," he said.
"Now we are seeing the ramifications of their intransigence - villages spilt in two; an unmanageable, indirect tax burden on low income households; and families being left with the awful prospect of having to separate their children from their friends and siblings.
"Many of these problems are immediately fixable and Cllr Jones has the power to make straightforward and necessary changes. It is a complete failure of leadership to keep shoving the responsibility onto families, schools and communities."