A Cabinet decision to consult on harmful changes to school transport policy will be subject to intense scrutiny, thanks to the work of councillors from the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group.
On 12 September, Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet decided to proceed with a consultation on school transport1. However a successful “call-in” will suspend the decision and prevent its implementation, until it has been considered by the Scrutiny Committee on 28 September 2017.
Suffolk currently provides free school transport for thousands of children living in rural areas who attend a school further than 3 miles from their home. The proposed policy changes would only allow children who attend their nearest school to qualify for free transport, and would come into effect in September 2019. Over 3700 children will be affected by this change. Their families will face an impossible choice between paying for transport or moving their child to the nearest school.
Councillor Penny Otton, whose division of Thedwastre South includes many of the villages that would be affected by this change, has been a vocal critic of the proposal. 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.”
The LDGI Group called-in the decision for a number of reasons, but most worrying was 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 inadequacy of the pre-consultation process and Cabinet report shocked opposition councillors, who raised their concerns during the Cabinet meeting. Unfortunately, the Cabinet chose to ignore these issues and voted unanimously for the consultation to proceed. Councillor Andrew Stringer, Deputy Leader of the LDGI Group, commented:
“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, added:
“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. 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.”
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 LDGI Group, and Green Councillor for Upper Gipping). Councillors Robert Lindsay, Caroline Page and Elfrede Brambley-Crawshaw supported the call-in application.
- The full Cabinet report can be read here: https://committeeminutes.suffolk.gov.uk/DocSetPage.aspx?MeetingTitle=(12-09-2017),%20The%20Cabinet