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Campaigners call on Suffolk County Council to make urgent changes to controversial school transport policy at public meeting in Nayland

Parent campaigners against controversial changes to school transport have vowed to keep up the pressure on under-fire education chiefs, calling for urgent changes to the policy.

Parents organised a public meeting in Nayland on Tuesday night to discuss issues with the new policy, which takes effect from September 2019.

It comes as 472 applications for home-to-school transport remained outstanding as of Tuesday morning, with a week to go until the new term started.

Suffolk County Council headquarters at Endeavour House in Ipswich. (15943528)
Suffolk County Council headquarters at Endeavour House in Ipswich. (15943528)

Emma Bishton, one of the parent campaigners, said there was “no understanding of how worrying and frustrating it is for parents who don’t know what’s happening with a week to go”.

She said: “As a pressure group, we still want to see the policy taken off the table and have a whole other look at it.

“But overnight there are things that could be addressed – the issue of split villages, allowing siblings to attend the same school and guaranteeing some certainty around spare seats.

“They could do that without overturning the whole policy and make life a whole lot better for people.”

Around 30-40 parents from across Suffolk gathered for the meeting on Tuesday night, with many having issues with the applications for spare seats.

However, the council claimed on Tuesday morning that many spare seats could not be allocated until after the GCSE results earlier this month, and said that all applications for funded transport received on time had been given an outcome.

Suffolk County Council Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott , who attended the meeting,said: “Parents were really frustrated and upset, and you can understand why. They and hundreds more have been left in limbo all summer with their children starting school in a matter of days.

“There has been no acknowledgement or apology from those who have caused this situation and you have to wonder whether they will do anything to stop this from happening again next year.

“A number of obvious changes could and should be made immediately to alleviate some of the stress that has been forced on families – sibling exemptions, a spare seat guarantee for five years, a flexible, common-sense approach to the ‘nearest school’ criteria.

“However, even these changes won’t be enough to save this policy which is fundamentally flawed and needs to be urgently reviewed. The time for intransigence is over – families need to be listened to and big changes need to be made.”

Some parents raised concerns that applications for spare seats would have to be made each term, although a council spokesman said this was not the case, and spare seat applications only needed to be made once per school year.

According to the council, it had received 783 late applications, and a further 178 were made last week, although Ms Bishton said: “You have to wonder if people are putting in that number of late applications whether it was communicated properly in the first place.”

The changes effectively mean that only children whose nearest school is two miles or more away from their home will receive funded transport, although parents could purchase spare seats on buses if they wished to send their child elsewhere.

However, some parents have argued that the policy did not work where children’s siblings already have a place on a school bus and, in order to prevent a child going to a different school than their siblings, parents were being forced to purchase spare seats.

Cllr Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for education, did not issue a new statement, but on Tuesday morning said: “I am pleased to confirm that at this point every child whose application was received on time and who is entitled to SCC funded school travel has received confirmation of their application outcome. All current pupils, who remain entitled to SCC funded school travel, have also had their seats confirmed.

“I do understand the frustration of families who may feel they have not had the outcome they expected but I also know that many families are working together with their schools and the council to come up with potential local solutions to share transport costs or find alternative transport arrangements where possible.”