We have today written to Councillor Mary Evans, now the lead for Education and Children's services at Suffolk County Council (she has replaced Gordon Jones in that role). At the last full council meeting on 17th October she announced an independent review of the School Transport Policy, which will be done by the Chief Fire Officer. Our letter asks for more information about the review and how parents can be involved to make sure their experiences are taken into account. We said:
Dear Councillor Evans
We are writing as representatives of the Suffolk School Bus Campaign to request further information regarding the scope, timeline, and evidence-gathering process of the review of the new School Transport policy.
We were pleased to hear your announcement of a review into the policy, as announced at the full Council meeting on 17th October. We also welcome your apology regarding the problems families have experienced this year. However, whilst we appreciate that you had, at that point, yet to confirm the scope of the review with the Chief Fire Officer, responses from Conservative councillors during the debate on school transport seemed limited to the implementation of the new policy. We hope that this was an oversight, and would appreciate clarification from yourself as to the methodology and scope of the forthcoming review.
It is clear to us, as parents who have either personal experience of how the policy has affected families, or of supporting families that have, that the policy itself not only causes the most egregious problems faced by families, but also leads to the process issues associated with implementing the policy. As you yourself noted at the council meeting, the number of applications to the council that had to be dealt with this year was six times higher than the number of new applications typically received in any one year previously. Given that the new policy requires an individualised response to each application, rather than a simpler, planned approach based on defined school catchments and transport priority areas, this is unlikely to reduce to the previous volume of applications, not least as more children move to secondary school. Any changing eligibility due to age, additional needs or financial circumstances, any house moves, applications for spare seats, and any changes to the permissions or accessibility of public rights of way all need to be considered annually under the new policy. This individualised approach not only penalises children and families in split villages in particular, but leads to decisions that are open to challenge and appeal on many levels, and which often require complex solutions with changing bus routes in order to provide the transport to which Suffolk children are entitled. Parents, who already feel that their voices are simply not important to the council, will feel completely let down if the review focuses only on process issues such as the IT system and the size of the transport team, rather than on the impact of the policy itself on their family circmstances.
We anticipate that an independent review will want to take into account the experiences and views of parents (and potentially their children). Please can you clarify how the views of parents will be sought and how the information gained will be used? We would be pleased to organise a meeting of parents if this would be useful, and can disseminate surveys or requests for parent views via our networks.
At present, many parents feel pawns in the system, being 'done unto' by a council with little understanding of the pressures facing either children, schools or working families in rural Suffolk, and who are being punished for wider cost pressures on the system which cannot not addressed simply by taking away the right to a bus pass for some children. This review presents an opportunity to right that wrong.
We look forward to hearing from you
As outlined in the previous blog entry, representatives of this campaign wrote last week to Cllr Matthew Hicks, Leader of Suffolk County Council, requesting an urgent meeting to address concerns about the impact of the new School Transport Policy on children and families in villages and rural areas across Suffolk.
The reason we requested a meeting was to discuss urgent changes needed to the policy to address the continued distress and chaos experienced by Suffolk families since applying for transport to their catchment school back in the spring. These experiences have been documented by scores of parents on the Campaign’s Facebook group and have been reported in today’s Guardian newspaper and widely in local media over recent weeks.
Councillor Hicks has now replied to the letter, refusing to meet on the grounds that a meeting is ‘not required’. He states that the council is already using feedback to inform review of the process and improve it for next year. No detail is given as to what aspects of the process are being reviewed, or to what timeframe. Cllr Hicks suggests that 93.4% of applications for transport from this term have now been processed, as if the fact that nearly 7% of applications are still to be dealt with, when term started 3 weeks ago, is something to be celebrated.
Crucially, in his reply, Cllr Hicks fails to address any of our concerns about the actual policy itself, and has focused only on the implementation problems experienced. He maintains in his response that the new policy provides a “fair approach” to school transport and addresses financial stresses on the school transport system. Our perspective, from the evidence we have amassed from local parents, is that it provides precisely the opposite.
Cllr Hicks and his Cabinet have succeeded in doing something extraordinary in current times: uniting people across political divides about the unfairness and irrationality of the new school transport policy. Despite claiming to be at the helm of a council which seeks ‘to listen’, he has refused an opportunity to listen to parents. In doing so, he is passing up yet another opportunity to apologise, publicly, to parents, schools and communities caught up in the new policy. More importantly, he is also passing up the opportunity to learn about the true impact the policy is having on families, and the reasons it will fail.
Representatives of the campaign have written to Councillor Matthew Hicks, Leader of Suffolk County council, to request an urgent meeting with him and the chief executive of the council regarding the current school transport policy. The letter was sent on 17th September.
We pointed out in the letter that, despite many statements to the contrary from Gordon Jones on local media and in local newspapers, many parents still have unresolved applications, are waiting for appeals, face continued uncertainty over spare seats, or are simply still waiting to receive an actual bus pass. We added that membership of the parents' Facebook group is now approaching 1000, with parents still - 3 weeks into term - posting their frustrations and requests for advice. We said:
'The stress and distress felt by countless parents and pupils due to the new policy - particularly those moving into year 7 in new schools - has been clearly relayed on local media (TV, radio and newspapers) and on social media, for some weeks now. Parents and community members are angry and confused by the lengths the Council appears to be going to to withhold school transport (either free or on a paid seat) from pupils simply wishing to attend their default catchment school. Moreover, we are now being contacted by parents with children not yet at secondary school, concerned about arrangements for next year and beyond. We fear that the financial, social, educational and environmental impacts of the policy will only increase unless urgent action is taken to withdraw the policy or at least to address the aspects causing most harm and distress to parents and communities.'
We have requested an urgent meeting - with opposition leaders in attendance - and are waiting to hear back. Updates will be posted here.
Parents, concerned local residents and opposition councillors from Suffolk County Council and Mid Suffolk council gathered in Nayland on Tuesday evening. All current county councillors had been invited. Regrettably Cllr Gordon Jones (the man responsible for the new school transport policy) sent his apologies, and none of the councils' Cabinet (or indeed any other Conservative councillors) were in attendance to hear the concerns of parents and the stress that they are under, with just one week to go before term starts.
Despite Cllr Jones's claim that parents 'who applied in time' now have answers, this is clearly not the case. Parents (at the meeting and on the Facebook page) continue to report problems with the portal, difficulties getting answers when they ring the council, and even different answers to the same questions! There are countless appeals and spare seat applications still outstanding, and there are still families in split villages with no idea how their new year 7 children are going to get to school. It was very clear on Tuesday evening that stress levels are rising fast.
What was also obvious is that the 'spare seat' policy itself is anything but clear. Cllr Jones seems to think that if parents are applying for a spare seat this is somehow an optional luxury. It's not, it's how some parents are having to get their children to school, especially those from villages split by the new policy. Even where parents are opting to purchase a spare seat, there is no clarity as to how these are being allocated. Is it 'first come first served', or distance, or siblings as priority, or sixth formers first then everyone else? Nothing is clear. And no certainty from one school year to the next that the seat will be available. In fact, it seems that the council may even be reducing the number of seats available for parents to purchase. Like everything else about this policy, the spare seat allocation causes turmoil and confusion - plus it costs far more than many parents can afford.
We continue to fight for the withdrawal of this divisive and chaotic policy. In the meantime, we call for three changes that could be made overnight and that would resolve many of the most divisive and difficult issues arising from the new policy: