Parents blast 'cruel' school transport policies in Suffolk after council cuts number of seats available on key bus routes just a couple of weeks before term starts
Controversial school transport policies in Suffolk have come under fire again after the council cut the number of seats available on key rural routes - leaving anxious parents just a week and a half to organise alternatives.
Suffolk County Council changed its school transport policy for 2019 which meant that only youngsters whose nearest school was two miles or more away from their home would qualify for funded transport.
The council agreed to sell spare seats on school buses to families to ensure they could continue sending their child to a school that was not their nearest, but refused to offer a spare seat guarantee beyond a term at a time.
On Tuesday this week, around 30 parents applying for spare seats this year were told that the bus sizes on some routes had been reduced, leaving no spare seats that could be sold.
They now have just over a week to arrange means for their children to get to school.
Fiona Macaulay has been a vocal campaigner against the new policy, which in the first two years has seen siblings split between different schools and even some villages being split between different establishments resulting in pupils separated from their peers.
She said on Tuesday she was told the spare seat application for her son Sam to travel from their home in Walsham le Willows to Thurston had been refused because the council had reduced the size of the bus from 70 seats to 60, meaning no spare seats were available on that route.
Her situation was made more complicated after a change in her personal circumstances meant the family had to move to a home further from the school and meant Sam lost his funded transport he was entitled to.
She investigated a move to closest school Ixworth, but it did not offer the same GCSE courses Sam is studying.
"I knew when I realised I would be moving he would lose his entitlement - I was refused for funded transport and I went with that on the basis that I could pay for a spare seat," she said.
"We applied at the beginning of July and they have told us on August 24 - less than two weeks before the start of term.
"There are at least 10 families in Walsham and Badwell Ash all served by this one bus [that now need to find alternatives].
"If we are all willing to pay £930 for the seat for the year, the cost between a 60 and 70 seater bus is negligible.
"It seems cruel, it seems vindictive and mean. They should hang their heads in shame."
Ms Macualay said she plans to appeal the decision, and in the meantime may be left having to drive her son to school with no way of him getting home in the afternoon.
Other parents on social media have shared similar circumstances.
The council's new education scrutiny committee is not due to review the school transport policy until 2024, with parents saying they were led to believe there would not be changes to spare seats in that time either.
A chaotic implementation in the first year resulted in hundreds of families not knowing whether they had a pass just days before term started, and resulted in a review by then-chief fire officer Mark Hardingham to learn lessons for the future.
However that was only into the implementation of the new rules, not the policy itself, which the administration has refused to amend so far.
Conservative cabinet member for education, Rachel Hood, said: "SCC has a statutory duty to transport all pupils who are eligible to SCC-funded school travel to school.
"When the buses on these routes are not at capacity, SCC can offer parents the option to purchase a spare seat where we are able to but, unfortunately, SCC cannot guarantee that a spare seat will be available. This has always been the case with spare seats.
“Due to changing demand, and to ensure that school travel is operated efficiently, routes may have to be reviewed and amended at any time.
"Should an eligible child need a seat on the bus, that child will take priority over a child using a spare seat. This means that we are unable to guarantee that any spare seat purchased would be available for the whole of a child’s time at the school.
“SCC have to complete the allocation process for entitled pre and post-16 students before we can confirm spare seats and this was completed on Monday 23 August. This is within the usual time scale.
"Spare seat applicants are always advised to have something in place for the start of term in case a spare seat is not available or transport cannot be set up in time.
“If SCC are unable to offer a spare seat parents can contact the operator directly for the price of seats on any commercially operated public transport routes, or routes run by schools as these may be cheaper. The contact details for bus companies operating in Suffolk are available online at www.suffolkonboard.com/operators."
Andrew Stringer, leader of the opposition Green, Liberal Democrat and Independent group said: "We have time after time asked for this to be revisited.
"If the policy had gone through and it was good it should be easy to work and easy to implement - it's disproportionately affecting people, and most importantly is not helping with children's education."