Applying for school transport set to be improved

Vertas has yet to obtain an operator's licence to run the school bus services in Suffolk

Changes to IT could help overcome some families' school transport problems - Credit: Rachel Edge

Parents will no longer have to wait until the stress of an appeal process to argue their need for school transport.

Suffolk county councillors have been told that new technology being brought in should mean families being able to put their full case when they apply - after many complaints.

It comes after concern that the council's school transport policy was not flexible enough.

Even the council has admitted that common-sense solutions to funded school transport problems are “not compatible” with its school travel policy.

The education authority 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.

This has 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.

The authority’s scrutiny committee last year called for common sense solutions to prevent those splits, but a 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.”

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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.”

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.

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

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.