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Review of controversial changes to school transport in Suffolk to consider policy reforms

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Changes to a controversial school transport policy in Suffolk have not been ruled out in 2020, as a ‘lessons learnt’ study is due to be published in the New Year.

Suffolk County Council’s cabinet member for education, Mary Evans, last month announced an independent review would take place over the implementation of the new policy introduced this September, following a catalogue of issues.

The change meant youngsters could only get funded school transport to their nearest school, and only if it was two miles away or further.

Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House (21044213)
Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House (21044213)

But hundreds of parents were still waiting for passes to be issued at the beginning of the new school term, while others reported issues with the online nearest school checker tool, siblings being split up and villages being divided.

Chief fire officer Mark Hardingham, who is chairing the panel, said that data-gathering is due to begin next week – which will include parent input – and findings published by the end of January.

But Mrs Evans, Conservative, has not ruled out changes to the policy itself if they are needed.

“The policy is transport to the nearest suitable school, and the review is looking at the implementation of the policy,” she said.

“It might look at areas of the policy, but we are not tearing the whole thing up.

“It could be we need to make changes to the policy itself, and we are open about that, but nearest school is the guiding principle.”

The review will gather feedback from parents – both good and bad experiences – as well as customer service staff, staff in the transport and children’s services teams and gather data such as appeal numbers and correspondence.

The report is expected to go to the council’s scrutiny committee in February, with the findings determining the next steps – be it internal changes, better resourcing or coming up with tweaks to the policy itself.

However, if changes are made to the details of the policy, a fresh consultation must take place with the public.

Mr Hardingham said: “The panel will look at what the reason was for the policy change in the first place.

“Depending on what the results are from that first phase [of the report] there may be something about needing changes to the implementation and there might be something in tweaking the policy.”

Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott said: “If this review is to have any credibility, then the Conservatives have to be prepared to make significant changes to their terrible policy, otherwise they will just be paying lip service.

“The chaos we saw this summer was partly due to poor planning, with Tory councillors leaving their staff high and dry by handing down a policy which wasn’t fit for purpose.

“However, the multitude of problems we are seeing largely stem from the policy itself, rather than its implementation.

“If the Tories want to minimise the impact of their cuts on schools and families, and avoid this from happening each and every summer, then they need to do more than paper over the cracks and look to fundamentally change the policy.”

Penny Otton, leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group, said: “It’s such a shame that this initial review will only focus on the implementation of the policy, rather than the obvious flaws in the policy itself.

“It just feels like the real issues are being pushed further into the long-grass – which means that children and families in Suffolk will once again be subjected to this damaging policy in the 2020-21 school year.

“The only solution is to make some major changes to the policy, as soon as possible.

“If the Conservatives were serious about ‘learning lessons’, they would be acknowledging that the policy itself is not fit for purpose.

“I also think it’s really important that the council speaks with both parents and councillors who have first-hand experience of the chaos that this new policy has caused. It’s time for the council to actually listen, rather than ignoring concerns like they did during the original consultation.”