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Suffolk County Council's school transport solutions are 'not compatible' with travel policy

Common-sense solutions to funded school transport problems are "not compatible" with the council's school travel policy, it has admitted.

But education chiefs have confirmed they are planning improvements to applications that could mean parents can argue their exceptions without having to go through the stress of an appeal.

Suffolk County Council controversially changed its school transport policy in 2019 from a "generous" policy to a "statutory minimum" in which only youngsters whose nearest school was two miles or more away from their home would be eligible for funded school transport.

Suffolk County Council controversially changed its school transport policy in 2019 from a "generous" policy to a "statutory minimum"
Suffolk County Council controversially changed its school transport policy in 2019 from a "generous" policy to a "statutory minimum"

The council agreed to honour the arrangements for existing pupils by phasing the changes over seven years, but the new policy led to issues of siblings being split between different schools and villages being split between two or three different schools that left youngsters going to different schools than their peers.

Reducing numbers of spare seats that parents could purchase if they did not wish to send their child to the nearest school has also emerged this year.

The authority's scrutiny committee last year called for common sense solutions to prevent those splits, but in a report presented to the council's new education scrutiny committee on Thursday morning it was admitted common-sense solutions were not compatible.

The report said: "A common-sense approach has no bearing in law. Such an approach would be subjective and not fair to all families; therefore, it would be incompatible with the school travel policy.

"Policies do not allow flexibility. The council applies ‘flexibility’ through the robust review and appeals process that is in place."

Adrian Orr, assistant director for education and learning, said: "We are charged as officers to make the most effective use of the public purse, and we have had to make some difficult decisions, but I think it is important we acknowledge the difficulties that can create even though that is never our intention."

It led to renewed calls at Thursday's meeting for flexibility to be added to procedures.

Councillor Jessica Fleming said "we are dealing with human beings," while Cllr Elaine Bryce added that it "puts parents through huge anxiety".

Currently, the application process for school transport, currently taken up by around 7,400 pupils across the county, only allows parents to indicate if their child has special educational needs or disabilities or is on a lower income.

It means parents who may have exceptional circumstances cannot demonstrate that until they go to appeal, and only if they choose to do so.

Julie Mitchell, business and information manager for passenger transport, said upgrades to the IT system planned to be in place in time for next year's applications hoped to be able to allow parents to provide evidence at the point of application.

"It's something on our list to change or improve the application process for families," she confirmed.

Cllr Sam Murray said: "For me it makes sense to change the policy in order for families to present the evidence at the start so you don't have to go through the appeals process."

Forecast figures indicated that without a change to the policy, costs of school transport could have ballooned to £45million per year over 10 years from the £21m in 2018 when the decision was made.

Figures for this year indicated the total spend was around £26.5m. Mainstream costs were £2.2m below forecast numbers but transport for SEND pupils is £3m above the target costs.

The first year of the policy's rollout in 2019 featured a series of problems, which included some families being given incorrect passes, passes arriving late and IT problems, which prompted a review by then chief fire officer Mark Hardingham.

It has been acknowledged however that since then the process has been vastly improved, which included IT upgrades, additional resources and improved regular communications with parents, as well as a better appeal process.

Conservative cabinet member for education, Rachel Hood, said: "Officers have worked hard to address the recommendations in the Hardingham report and have continued to review procedures to improve the customer experience."

Cllr Hood acknowledged however that the "policy was not popular when it was implemented".

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