School transport arrangements being made for 2,000 pupils on public bus routes
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
A route-by-route review of travel arrangements for more than 2,000 pupils in Suffolk who rely on public transport to get to school is being carried out by transport chiefs.
The Department for Education has issued guidance this week to local authorities on arrangements needed for pupils to return to school in September.
In Suffolk, about 12,000 pupils each year are eligible for funded school transport. Around 10,000 of those are on dedicated school buses, which this week have been confirmed as not needing social distancing measures.
MORE: September school transport uncertainty as spare seats can’t be sold to familiesSo far, around 8,000 of those 10,000 passes have been issued. Pupils aged 12 and over have been urged to wear face masks on those routes, however.
But around 2,000 pupils are given funded bus passes for public bus routes, which has proved more problematic as current government social distancing requirements mean that face masks must be worn and passengers appropriately spaced out.
Suffolk County Council has now confirmed that it is having to work through each of the 90 routes with transport operators to see whether there is enough space for pupils, and where this is not possible extra buses may be laid on.
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The council said it was painstakingly working through each route and contacting parents as soon as each solutions were finalised.
Conservative cabinet member for education, Mary Evans, said: “I appreciate how unsettling this is for parents who are preparing for September but I would like to assure them that the school travel team are working extremely hard to ensure transport is arranged for all eligible pupils at the start of term.
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“Our priority is to ensure the safety of children on their journeys to and from school and we will continue to update families as we work through the guidance.”
The DfE announced a £40million pot last week to help fund arrangements for children using school buses, which Suffolk County Council should receive a share of.
However, the option for parents to purchase spare seats on school buses is not currently available.
Funded travel is only offered to pupils for their nearest school if it is two miles or more away from their home, following changes to the policy last year, but parents who wish to send their child to another school can purchase unused spare seats.
But that process is currently frozen as families receiving funded travel must be prioritised, meaning an additional 225 families are not yet sure if they will even be able to purchase a spare seat later in the summer.
Labour group spokesman for education Jack Abbott said: “It is absurd that local authorities still have only just been provided with guidance, despite the new school term starting in a matter of weeks.
“This has left local authorities and schools in an impossible position and has increased uncertainty and anxiety for families.”
He added: “I appreciate that this is a really challenging period and that the Government have really sold local authorities short, but I’m increasingly concerned about this arbitrary removal of spare seats.
“Families filling spare seats were penalised by the Conservatives’ chaotic school transport changes, by having to pay hundreds of pounds to attend their catchment school last year. Now, they are being penalised again and left in an impossible position just weeks ahead of the new school year.
“The capacity on the network must be increased and, at the very least, the spare seats on vehicles carrying only school children, which have no social distance requirements, should be honoured.”
Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group spokeswoman for education, Penny Otton, warned it could result in another summer like last year where issues included passes being given late.
She said: “There are still 4,000 families in Suffolk who don’t have their school bus passes. With just over three weeks to go until the new school year starts I am very concerned that we are going to see a repeat of last year’s disaster.”
She added that the spare seat uncertainty made it difficult for parents to plan working hours or alternative options which was “adding more stress for parents and carers at a time when they are also dealing with fears over the safety of their children”.