Parents report school transport errors just hours after 2020 applications open

School transport in Suffolk has been controversial since policy changes introduced last year, and pa

School transport in Suffolk has been controversial since policy changes introduced last year, and parents have reported issues on day one of the 2020 application process. Picture: RACHEL EDGE - Credit: RACHEL EDGE

The opt-in process for parents to secure school transport for their children has begun – but parents have reported issues within just a handful of hours of the system going live.

Mary Evans, Conservative cabinet member for education said she recognised there were problems with t

Mary Evans, Conservative cabinet member for education said she recognised there were problems with the application process last year. Picture: SIMON LEE PHOTOGRAPHY - Credit: Archant

The controversial changes to Suffolk County Council's policy introduced last year - which only provides funded travel to youngsters to their nearest school if it is two miles away or more - resulted in a host of issues during the implementation stage.

A report published in January found 19 failings in the launch last summer, with education and transport chiefs agreeing to put in place additional measures to avoid those problems.

As part of that, the council agreed to provide better communication with parents, with messages being sent out on Wednesday reminding parents that they need to opt-in to the system.

But parent campaigners have said there have already been issues with opt-in messages being sent to current Year 11 pupils - those who will be applying for post-16 travel which is separate, while younger siblings who should be getting reminders haven't received them.

Fiona Macaulay, a parent campaigner against the changes, was among those to experience the problem with her children, and said there had also been reports that the system went down on its first day - despite IT upgrades two days prior to the launch.

She said: "It's really confusing for parents - dozens of parents are messaging me already saying the same thing.

"They promised they would get the communication right and make it completely clear and easy to understand. It's an absolutely ridiculous system."

A scrutiny committee meeting last month discussed the problems raised from the implementation last year, but education chiefs refused to consider any changes to the policy until December at the earliest, which parents said was too late.

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Among the biggest problems last year were the issue of siblings being split between different schools because there was no exemption for siblings already attending a school that wasn't their nearest before the policy was launched, villages being split between different schools and a lack of certainty around the ability to purchase spare seats on buses for parents who didn't want to send their child to the nearest school.

Ms Macaulay added: "We cannot want, we need to act now. Those issues of split villages, split siblings and spare seats aren't going to go away by leaving it another year. There are a lot of parents finding it incredibly stressful."

The council said that the deadline to opt in was May 31, and that families with children starting secondary school from September would receive an email by the end of March if they were eligible for funded school transport.

Parents who have opted in to school transport should expect their application to be processed within 20 days.

For parents who wish to apply for a spare seat on a service that is not their nearest school, the applications open on July 1.

Conservative cabinet member for children's services and education, Mary Evans, said: "It is important that parents' opt-in for SCC funded school travel by the 31 May 2020 to ensure that transport is in place for the start of the new school year.

"I recognise that there were lessons to be learnt from last year's introduction of opting-in for home to school travel. As a result, improvements to simplify the system and enable automatic processing have been developed. This means applications will be handled more efficiently which will make the process simpler and easier for families to navigate."

According to the council, the parents of Year 11 pupils who received opt-in messages by mistake were sent corrected messages on Thursday afternoon, and emails were sent to all parents who opted in last year.

MORE: Hundreds of children start school without bus passesCouncil data said there were around 6,900 returning pupils eligible for school transport this year, with the authority having approved 2,061 applications already.

A spokeswoman added that the website did go down for an hour from 7-8pm as part of an update to all county services online, and was not triggered by school transport page views.

Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott said: "It's really concerning that, on day one of this year's school transport applications, things are already going wrong.

"This, despite the recent publication of a damning report which had multiple criticisms of how the new policy's implementation was handed. Parents are already asking whether anything has actually been learned from the shambles we saw last summer."

"I find it inexplicable that the Conservatives refuse to review the policy itself until December, two months after the deadline for school place applications closes.

"This means that parents will be applying for school places before they even know what next year's school transport eligibility will be. It could make a profound difference.

"There is no logical reason to delay this review any longer. Parents are asking for three simple changes; sibling exemptions, no more split villages and spare seat stability.

"When even their own councillors are saying that this needs to change, it's clear that the Tories running the council should stop dithering and start listening."