Nineteen failings unveiled in review of controversial school transport policy

School transport in Suffolk has been a controversial issue. Picture: RACHEL EDGE

School transport in Suffolk has been a controversial issue. Picture: RACHEL EDGE - Credit: RACHEL EDGE

A catalogue of errors have been found in the launch of a controversial new school transport policy last year, a new report has found.

Mark Hardingham's report confirmed a series of issues in the school transport policy implementation.

Mark Hardingham's report confirmed a series of issues in the school transport policy implementation. Picture: SFRS - Credit: Archant

A cost-saving new policy was introduced last year which only gave children funded transport to their nearest school if it was two miles or more away from their home.

A report commissioned at the tail end of 2019 was published this afternoon, in which chief fire officer Mark Hardingham, who was chairing the review, outlined 19 issues the council must hold its hands up to.

Among them was a recognition that the "plan was not robust enough", there was "unclear leadership" and "frustration across the system".

Other issues included a lack of staff available to cope with the workload, software and IT issues and poor communication between the council and schools.

Mary Evans said she was taking the report findings seriously. Picture: ARCHANT

Mary Evans said she was taking the report findings seriously. Picture: ARCHANT

The full list of findings is as follows:

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- The plan was not robust enough for the successful implementation of such a significant policy

- SCC dealt with a significant volume of applications, an increase of around 450% on previous years

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- There were not enough skilled staff available when demand was high, which led to some errors being made

Cllr Jack Abbott said issues in the implementation were linked to flaws in the policy itself. Pictur

Cllr Jack Abbott said issues in the implementation were linked to flaws in the policy itself. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

- A small number of staff have a great deal of knowledge and responsibility due to their specialist understanding of the system's details and complexities

- There was unclear leadership of the whole system

- There were issues caused by software upgrades and a lack of support from the software supplier, with SCC staff losing confidence in the system

- Messages about the policy and application process weren't always understood by parents, nor were they consistent. Stakeholders were also unclear about the importance of the messages they were asked to share

- Issues with systems and processes meant that staff became over-stretched, which resulted in some parents experiencing prolonged and ineffective applications

- Communication between SCC and schools was inconsistent. This meant that some schools and parents did not receive clear messages and lost confidence in the system

- The school travel system is already complex. Additional, self-imposed processes in the system meant that parents did not receive a quality and consistent service

- Many parents who did not have a smooth application process, felt that the experience had affected their, and their family's, wellbeing

- The appeals process needs improving and simplifying

- The School Travel Stakeholder Partner Group and its sub-groups were valued, but questions were raised about how they might have had greater influence

- The lack of available and accurate data meant that informed decisions could not be made about performance and how to improve the system

- More detailed analysis is required of the short, medium and long-term risks and benefits when implementing the policy

- It is unclear if policy should be applied 'to the letter', or if there is room for flexibility in certain cases

- Financial monitoring of the policy must continue, so savings and the future sustainability of the policy can be evidenced

- The spare seat policy caused frustration and became entangled with issues related to the school travel policy

- There was frustration across the system that SCC staff did not respond soon enough, or listen to, the issues being experienced

An increase of 450% in applications left hundreds of youngsters starting school without passes, as well as issues with incorrect passes being handed out, and problems with the nearest school website.

Parents also criticised the council for having no sibling exemption, meaning some youngsters were forced to go to a different school than their brothers or sisters.

In his report Mr Hardingham said: "For most parents, the process of applying for school travel was carried out with few or no problems.

"However, for a minority this was not the case and they were frustrated by the impact of the policy changes, the way their application was dealt with or both."

The review was to explore only the implementation of the new policy, not controversies around the policy itself, although education cabinet member Mary Evans didn't rule out changes to the policy if needed.

Following the report's findings she said: "I am taking these findings extremely seriously.

"I am committed to ensuring that the system for applying for school transport is much more effective and efficient for pupils, parents and schools in 2020 and future years."

The report will go to the council's scrutiny committee next week for debate, which will make recommendations on what needs to happen next.

Data obtained under Freedom of Information laws last year showed the policy had resulted in a sixfold increase in appeals, ballooning from an average of 21 appeals to 141, with parents experiencing a 71% success rate on their appeals.

Parent campaign

A parent campaign was launched against the proposals when the consultation on the changes first got underway, and continued through to its implementation.

Following a host of vocal parents raising issues with spare seat proposals, split villages, and siblings being split up, a call was made for three immediate changes.

Campaigners demanded that students starting school this year who already had a sibling at another school be exempt, guarantee certainty for parents opting to purchase a spare seat to a school not deemed their child's nearest that the seat would be available beyond just one term, and address the issue of split villages, and even split roads where children on one side of the road were considered nearer to a different school than those on the opposite side.

Those three suggestions were all rejected by then cabinet member for education Gordon Jones.

Labour group reaction

Councillor Jack Abbott, education spokesman for the opposition Labour group had raised concerns about both the policy and its implementation.

He said: "Although this report will come as little surprise to the thousands of families who had to endure an incredibly difficult summer, it does highlight a litany of problems that beset the implementation of the Conservative's school travel policy.

"It is clear that a hardworking school transport team were left poorly resourced by a Tory administration who handed down a half-baked policy without producing a robust implementation plan.

"However, you cannot separate the fact that the farcical state of affairs we saw last year was intrinsically linked to a deeply flawed policy.

"Unless significant changes are made to the policy itself, we will continue to see these chaotic situations, each and every year."

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