We already know that Year 6 children moving up to secondary school in September are bearing the brunt of the new school transport policy. In some cases, children will be unable to attend their catchment school (and will have to attend a different school than their siblings and classmates), and in other cases, parents are expecting to be forced to drive their child to school. But a staggering number of children - and their parents - are still waiting to be told exactly what situation they are in, and how they will be getting to school when term starts in a few weeks time.
According to a Freedom of Information request, Suffolk County Council received 1,796 applications for home-school transport for year 6 children starting secondary school in September. But as of July 11th, only 729 (40%) of those applications had actually been dealt with. Of these, 139 people (so far) have been refused transport. Over 1000 applications were still waiting to be dealt with.
The situation for parents applying for a 'spare seat' (at a cost of £750) under the new policy is not much better. At the beginning of July, the Information Request reveals that only 41% of the spare seat applications received had been processed. Countless parents are ringing the council on a regular basis, only to be told they won't hear until August if their 'spare seat' application is successful.
The same FoI revealed that the number of staff employed to deal with school transport (just 3) is still the same as last year, despite the council implementing a difficult new policy that affects thousands of pupils. So it's not surprising that the system can't cope. It is very clear from reports on social media that Suffolk County Council completely fail to understand that many parents whose children are denied free transport, or who unable to purchase a 'spare seat', will have to change work patterns. Or worse, are planning to give up paid work so they can get their children to school. And it's also clear that the councillors responsible simply don't care about the impact of all this uncertainty on children and their families. Just not good enough.
We've been contacted by several parents who are still waiting to hear the outcome of their application for school transport. So we put a poll up on the Facebook site to find out if other parents are still waiting, too. It's clear from the responses that many many parents are still waiting to hear from the county council about their applications for free transport and 'spare seats' - even though some of them applied in March! Parents are being told that they will. hear the outcome of their application in July or August - which as they point out, is well into the school holidays. In many cases this is for children who will be changing school in September, and for some parents it means that they still don't know which school their child will actually be attending.
We've also heard from parents whose appeals have been delayed despite the fact that Suffolk had to triple the number of councillors sitting on the appeals panel when they implemented the new policy! Many of the parents still waiting to hear about their initial application will want to appeal if their application is refused, so they - and their children - will be left waiting and waiting over the summer.
It's clear from messages we have received that many parents need to make decisions about stopping work or changing work patterns in order to walk or drive their children to school from September. (And this is so parents can drive children expecting to attend their traditional catchment secondary school - in many cases alongisde their siblings. And parents now required to drive children of 8 and above who are now being denied bus travel for routes of 2 or 3 miles that are clearly unsafe.) As one parent put it, 'these aren't decisions that we can make overnight'.
Not only is the new transport policy itself divisive, cruel and full of holes, the system is clearly under too much strain for the council to implement it in time. Which in itself is grounds to post-pone the implementation of the policy.
We need to keep building the evidence about the impact of this policy and the council's failure to implement it properly. And we need to do this quickly. Please ask parents you know to complete our Facebook poll or to contact us here to let us know if they are waiting to hear the outcome of an application or appeal.
So much has happened in such a short a time. One thing that has been picked up on are the routes that Suffolk County Council are using to calculate your measured journey (by walking distance) to school. For some parents in the west of the county, the council actually tried to take their route through private land! Not only did this upset the landowner (and put people at risk of being accused of trespass), but importantly it made the journey less than 6 miles. This is crucial as the statutory guidance that can be found here will tell you that anything over 6 miles must be measured differently. The council wont tell you about this guidance and the potential impact it has on journey routes. You do have to ask for the route map they are using, measured from your address to school as they wont just hand it over either.
If you are unhappy with the result of your application, you must appeal. SCC has (we understand) tripled the number of councilors available for appeal panel hearings so they know what they're doing is not popular!
Now that parents have had to opt in for school transport from September, the full impact of Suffolk's new school transport policy is becoming clear. As reported in the East Anglian Daily Times, families in villages like Nayland and Boxford are being punished by the council for no other reason than living on the wrong street. It has become clear that the new policy (which calculates distances to school to the nearest metre, using home postcodes), really will divide primary school classmates by providing them with transport to different schools, against their parents' wishes. During May I attended a full meeting of Suffolk County Council to ask a public question about the new policy. I asked whether the council was aware that their new policy was creating splits in some villages, where children are now being offered free transport to different schools. (This is a particular problem for children going to secondary school in September). The response of the councillor responsible (Gordon Jones, SCC Cabinet member for Children's Services, Education and Skills) was that there might be some short-term increase in costs where it will result in two buses going to different schools instead of one bus going to one school, while the policy is phased in. But he also said that because some parents already choose to go to non-catchment schools, split villages weren't considered an issue. He suggested that parents and schools might come up with 'local solutions' for the 'two-school' problem including parents doing lift-shares and schools offering their own transport.
He seemed to be either conflating or confusing different things, so (as is permitted in the formal setting of a full council meeting) I asked one supplementary question, pointing out that parental choice and the county's legal obligations to provide school transport are separate issues. (After all, parents only choose to send their children to non-catchment schools when they can afford to do so.) It so happens that two of the county councillors live in the village of Nayland. According to the Council's nearest school checker, one lives in one of the streets now designated for Hadleigh High School (with which our primary has no links and to which there is no bus service). The other lives in the part of the village still designated for Thomas Gainsborough School in Sudbury (our historical catchment school, with good links to our primary school and on a public bus route). The split occurs at our primary school, which for historical reasons has two postcodes; one is now apparently 'nearer' to Hadleigh and one to Thomas Gainsborough.
I outlined this situation to Gordon Jones, pointing out that this situation would result in SCC having to provide transport going in two directions instead of just one bus as now, and asked if he was comfortable that the new policy had created a split in villages like Nayland. You might think the sensible response to this kind of inefficient and unfair situation would be to say 'we need to look at that unintended consequence', yet I regret to say he merely repeated his claim that because some parents choose to send their children to grammar schools over the county border, we are already a 'split village'. By implication, he seemed to suggest that the chaos resulting directly from the new policy was not a concern.
The result of this policy is that in villages like Nayland, some parents will be forced to pay upwards of £750 per child per year in order for their child to do nothing more unusual than moving up to secondary school with their classmates. For these families, the policy amounts to an opportunistic extra tax. The alternative is that children in families for whom this is unaffordable will have to go a different school from their classmates - child and family effectively being discriminated against for having less money than others. It has to be noted that the council seems to have little understanding that £750 (minimum per child) is a significant sum of additional money for young families to find. Either way, the council's new policy amounts to a postcode lottery. And all of this was both predictable, and predicted.
There's a further complication for the schools concerned. If pupils end up going to schools they did not choose to go to instead of the school they already have secured a place in, those schools won't get the budgets they are expecting this year. And relationships with feeder primaries are totally disrupted, making it much harder to plan smooth school transitions for children moving to secondary school in future years. (Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and schools are organising their provision around the numbers of pupils they are expecting to receive come September.)
I was astonished by the lack of interest - let alone sympathy to the affected families - shown by the council in response to my questions at the council meeting. Any councillor responsible for schools should be aware that schools don't have spare management time or budget to put on buses. Furthermore, if the county council was actually planning to review school catchments and admissions, including for schools still in LEA control - it should have done so based on some actual analysis of the need for school places relative to the locations and types of schools, not just by redefining school relationships as an unintentional consequence of reducing access to school buses. And it most certainly ought to be consulting with the schools concerned.
In the meeting, and in their general statements about the policy, it's not clear whether the council is wilfully confusing parental choice with its legal responsibilities for school transport, or simply doesn't understand the policy framework. Either way, it shows little regard for the wellbeing of children anxious they won't now go to the same school as their classmates, for their parents, school budgets, or the environment. It couldn't be clearer that councillors are hoping parents will just pick up the bill for a responsibility that sits with the council.
Several years ago, the county council set about the contentious and messy process of closing all the county's middle schools with the goal of smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school, because, they said, this would help them to achieve better educationally. It seems they no longer care about the pupils, given the indifference they are showing to parents and pupils caught up in a policy blunder brought about by the poor implementation of a bad policy. Please, Suffolk County Council, there is still time to pull your head out of the sand. Postpone the implementation of this policy and go back to the drawing board.
The question and answer in full are available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e1_j2mlc2I8&feature=youtu.be (from about 22:50 to 27:42)