Statement following discussion on School Transport at Suffolk County Council's Scrutiny meeting
Representatives of the Suffolk School Bus Campaign were present at Suffolk County Council’s Scrutiny meeting yesterday, to speak and hear debate on the report from the review of the implementation of the School Transport Policy. It was clear from the length and range of the debate that very many councillors share our concerns about the policy and the experience endured by parents and the transport team during the summer of 2019. It was also clear that not only is the council unable to demonstrate any efficiencies and financial savings due to the new policy, but that it is not at all clear how they will even try to do this.
The report identified 19 failings by the county council. We had hoped that Cllr Evans would take a pragmatic approach to the problems identified. But although officers present were able to outline measures to improve the application process through IT systems and communications with parents, we were extremely disappointed and frustrated with Cllr Evans’ overall response. As noted many times during the meeting, and as evidenced by the significant number of appeals for transport, some of the fundamental problems stem from the policy itself. (Issues arising from the use of walking routes to calculate eligibility for transport, in a rural county, cannot simply be viewed as process issues.) We were particularly concerned by four issues that arose during the meeting:
We repeat our call for simple but necessary amendments to the council’s new School Transport Policy. Namely*:
These are the same changes we have been calling for since August last year. Families and schools across Suffolk cannot afford to wait any longer. We call on Cllr Evans to implement these changes now, before parents start applying for transport for the next school year.
As previously reported, last October Suffolk County Council established an internal panel to review the implementation of the new school transport policy. This followed several months of reports about the chaos, confusion and distress caused by the new policy. The review panel have now published their report, which will be debated by Suffolk County Council's Scrutiny Committee next Wednesday, 12th February. The report, which is in four sections, is available for the public to read here (the document titled 'Evidence Set 2' contains a summary and lists the panel's findings.)
The panel have clearly undertaken a thorough and comprehensive review of the implementation of the policy, which we welcome. It is important to note that the review panel were asked to consider only the implementation of the policy, not the policy itself. Nonetheless, the report is damming. The review panel identified 19 failings associated with the implementation of the new policy. These include:
Crucially, the panel acknowledge the distress experienced by parents trying to apply for transport, as well as the burden on council staff administering applications for transport and the impact on school staff. They also make clear that the changes the council introduced have made an already-complex system even more complicated.
As the report notes - and the EADT has highlighted again recently - the new transport policy led to a huge increase in appeals for the current school year (despite the fact that one of the other failings noted by the review panel is that the appeals process is overly-complicated and difficult for parents to use). The majority of these have been upheld (meaning parents have been successful in challenging the council about their children's transport to school). The review panel made clear in their report that disentangling implementation issues from the policy changes was 'easier to say than do', and that it is unclear whether the policy is to be applied flexibly or 'to the letter'. The panel also identify the difficulty evidencing any financial savings from the policy (the reason the policy was changed the first place). All these points suggest the policy itself is deeply flawed.
The review panel have made a several recommendations for the council to consider (starting with debate at the Scrutiny Committee next week). These recommendations (if adopted) should improve aspects such as communications about school transport, the appeals process, and even the the process for applying for transport in the first place. However, it is very clear that the main problems parents and schools are experiencing with the new policy will not go away unless the council make changes to the policy itself.
The review was requested by Councillor Mary Evans (who replaced Gordon Jones as the lead on children and education issues at the council). She has indicated that she is taking the report seriously, and that she is 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'. These words are welcome, but what parents need is action - and we need it now, before people start applying for transport for the next school year. The only way to stop the policy creating more distress to children and parents, dividing more villages, and driving a wedge through long-established school catchments, is to amend the policy as we have been requesting now for several months. The Scrutiny Committee can do this. It's time for our councillors to show their interest and concern for Suffolk's villages and school communities. We ask them to consider three changes to the policy:
Chambers bus company, which provides the 84 bus from Sudbury to Colchester, serving Thomas Gainsborough school for villages along the A134, have just announced that as of the end of March they intend reducing the service to school times only, and withdrawing the public bus service from Stoke by Nayland entirely. This is because the reduction in pupils eligible for school transport on that route reduces the income they receive and therefore reduces the overall viabilty of the whole service.
We have been pointing out to SCC for months that the policy would have not only a highly detrimental impact in villages split - or in the case of villages like Stoke by Nayland, split off - by the school transport policy, but that it would also have impact beyond just school runs. We now find ourselves in exactly the position we feared. And this scenario will almost certainly be replicated in other parts of the county. The people who use buses most in villages are the young, the old and the disabled. Now, as a consequence of this disastrous policy, not only are children in Stoke by Nayland no longer eligible for transport to their catchment school, but residents who don't drive will be unable to get to the doctor's surgery. For instance.
As reported on here, the school bus policy is currently under (internal) review, due to report in February to SCC scrutiny committee. The scope of that review is about the implementation of the school transport policy, but there is potential for the review to highlight areas in the policy which require attention, and we of course hope that this occurs. (As has already been made clear, the implementation of the policy has been extremely difficult because the policy itself is both flawed and rigidly applied.)
The school bus policy was redrawn without thought as to school catchments, without apparent reference to SCC's responsibilties for public bus provision, and in compete ignorance of their so-called environmental objectives. You couldn't get a better example of silo thinking.
The timeline for Chambers' consultation and the review overlap. We will be making sure councillors understand that not only is this announcement a direct consequence of their flawed policy, it is, if they act very swiftly, reversable.
In October Cllr Mary Evans announced an independent review into the school transport policy, led by the chief fire officer Mark Hardingham. We asked for detailed information about what the review would cover and how it would be done. We have received a reply from Cllr Evans with a copy of the terms of reference for the review. It is now clear that the review is first looking at the implementation of the policy - the process of applying for transport. The review will report on this, then the council will consider if the findings of the review mean that they should make changes to the actual policy.
We have some significant concerns about the review. These include 1) whether it is actually independent or just an internal council review 2) that they should be considering the policy problems alongside the implementation problems and 3) how they are gathering evidence from parents.
However, the review is still a real opportunity to make clear the full impact of this disastrous policy and it is essential for us to be as involved as possible so the voices of parents, pupils and schools are heard.
As part of the review the review team need to gather views from parents (they will also be looking at evidence from applications). We asked them for a public meeting for parents which they have declined, instead requesting a meeting with a small representative group. This is likely to take place in early December. (Further details to follow). Meanwhile we have to make sure we present them with all the evidence we can get together from parents. Please fill in this survey and share as widely as possible. The survey is open until 30th November. (We will publish the results as well as passing them to the review team).