13 September 2017
Yesterday, Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet decided to proceed with a consultation on a proposal to drastically cut subsidies for school transport. However, councillors from the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group have successfully applied to call-in the decision to scrutiny committee. This will suspend the decision and prevent its implementation, until it has been considered by the Scrutiny Committee on 28 September 2017.
The cost-cutting proposal from the county's Conservative cabinet was to cut free school transport to primary and secondary school children if they are not attending their nearest school. Thousands of children across the county are attending their catchment school, but their catchment school is not their nearest. That means that under this plan - which the cabinet said it wants to implement in September 2019, they would face the choice of either switching schools or having to find and pay for their own transport arrangements. In addition the subsidy for 16-18 year olds attending their nearest college would be completely withdrawn. The county's "Endeavour" card which gives 16-18 year olds a 25% discount on some bus tickets, is not accepted by Greater Anglia Railway or some commercial bus companies.
Councillor for Cosford, Robert Lindsay, joined his group members in demanding the decision be scrutinised. The call-in was proposed by Councillor Penny Otton (Liberal Democrat Councillor for Thedwastre South) and seconded by Councillor Andrew Stringer (Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group, and Green Councillor for Upper Gipping). Councillors Caroline Page and Elfrede Brambley-Crawshaw also supported the call-in application.
Cosford’s councillor Robert Lindsay, whose division will be affected by the proposed changes, said:
"It was quite clear that this proposal was being rushed into a consultation without the implications on childrens' education being thought through. According to the council's own research, more than a third of secondary school children in the 18 villages in my division, Cosford, would have had their free bus to school withdrawn in 2019, even though families have chosen their school on the basis that there was a free bus. This would have disrupted their education and put hundreds more cars on the roads. It amounts to an attack on Suffolk's rural communities."
The call-in application cited a number of issues with the report which informed Cabinet’s decision. It criticised the lack of a full impact assessment. No evidence or quantified data was provided with regards to the expected impact on:
Educational attainment, particularly with regards to children being forced to change schools and potentially curriculums at a key point in their education;
Increased car use in rural areas, and the congestion that would accompany this;
The viability of the schools, especially post-16 facilities, which may struggle to continue operating.
The Councillors also argued that the pre-consultation period was entirely inadequate. The experience of Thurston Community College in particular raised questions about the process, for 4 reasons:
The initial meeting was held during August, when all staff with experience of organising school transport were on holiday and thus not consulted;
Thurston Community College were not informed in advance of the purpose of the meeting, and so were only made aware of the “serious threat” at this “consultation meeting”. This meant that they were unable to provide a considered response. Although a further meeting was scheduled to discuss the proposed consultation in more detail, this was cancelled by Suffolk County Council officers with an hour’s notice and has not been rearranged.
Thurston Community College was issued with a flawed version of the Equality Impact Assessment, which omitted important details about which schools would be worst affected by the proposed changes.
TCC were informed that an “IT issue” meant that governors of Suffolk schools were not informed of the proposal to consult until after the deadline for submitting questions to the Cabinet meeting had passed.
Councillor Penny Otton, whose division of Thedwastre West includes many of the villages within Thurston Community College’s Transport Priority Area, has been a vocal critic of the proposed changes. She said:
“Over the past few days, we have seen just how distressing rural communities find these proposed changes, and I am proud that so many teachers, parents, pupils and governors have voiced their concerns. It is clear that the proposed changes will divide rural communities, create financial difficulties for a vast number of families, and disrupt the education of hundreds of children. To make matters worse, Suffolk County Council is clearly reneging on a promise made to Thurston Community College during the Schools Organisation Review, that it would continue providing free school transport for all pupils in the school’s catchment area. For all these reasons, I believe it is vital to scrutinise the decision made by Cabinet.”
Councillor Andrew Stringer said:
“We are deeply concerned by the lack of accurate information within the supporting documentation, and the omission of a comprehensive impact assessment. Before Suffolk County Council can bring this matter to a public consultation, they need to spell out the full implications to the communities that will be affected.”
Councillor Caroline Page, the Group’s spokesperson for Highways and Transport, said:
"This situation was totally predictable and preventable. Having comprehensively annihilated scheduled rural bus services, Suffolk County council now complains that it has to rely on expensive closed buses and taxis to meet their statutory obligations to the students of this county - and seems surprised that this provision is not open to Suffolk residents. The young people of Suffolk are worth investment. Instead of further penalising rural residents by moving the goalposts once again, I call on SCC to make proper provision for the rural families of this county by once again subsidising rural bus services and funding student travel to the new de facto statutory school age of 18 out of their ever increasing reserves."
Councillor Elfrede Brambley-Crawshaw said:
"Parents make difficult decisions about which school to send their children to based on all kinds of criteria. For the County Council to change the requirements for free transport to school midway through a child’s education is very disappointing. Not only does it increase the likelihood of more children being driven individually, compounding a Suffolk wide problem with traffic, but for some families the only option may be to move schools and thus disrupt their child's education."
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