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Will school transport policy changes be made before this year's applications?

PUBLISHED: 07:30 13 February 2020

School transport in Suffolk has been an issue since the new policy was brough in. Picture: RACHEL EDGE

School transport in Suffolk has been an issue since the new policy was brough in. Picture: RACHEL EDGE

RACHEL EDGE

Measures which aim to improve the implementation of the school transport application process in Suffolk have been outlined - but there will be no changes to policy in time for the beginning of the next school year.

Mary Evans, Conservative education cabinet member said measures were being put in place in time for this year's applications. Picture: GREGG BROWNMary Evans, Conservative education cabinet member said measures were being put in place in time for this year's applications. Picture: GREGG BROWN

During a scrutiny committee gathering on Wednesday, Suffolk County Council officers were grilled on where the implementation of the controversial new policy went wrong last year, exposed in an independent report collating 19 failings.

READ MORE: Sixfold increase in school transport appeals

Among the issues last summer were IT problems, incorrect passes being sent or passes being too late, a 450% rise in applications which left staff unable to cope with the workload, and issues of villages or siblings being split between two different schools.

The new policy only offered free transport to youngsters whose nearest school was two miles away or further.

A host of measures are to be introduced in time for this year's applications, which includes more temporary staff trained and on standby, a fully tested IT system and improved communications to parents.

Cllr Jack Abbott, Labour education spokesman, said another look in December at the policy was too late.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNCllr Jack Abbott, Labour education spokesman, said another look in December at the policy was too late. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

But Conservative cabinet member for education, Mary Evans, has refused to make any changes to the policy itself prior to the new wave of applications between May and July.

"I think it would be useful to bring it all back once we have had next year's bus pass allocation," she said.

"We could bring it back in the summer, but what are we going to be saying - we have got a plan and we are working on it.

"It's almost going to be the proof in the pudding.

Chief fire officer Mark Hardingham chaired the review into school transport implementation which highlighted 19 failings.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWNChief fire officer Mark Hardingham chaired the review into school transport implementation which highlighted 19 failings. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

"But I as cabinet member will be checking in to make sure the plan is on track and that the things we said we are going to get done.

"At this stage, we are talking about the implementation. I know there are many people wanting me to talk about the policy. "I have to consider in light of the recommendations whether we look at putting in more flexibility.

"As we said, you don't want to make a change that has unintended consequences and make things worse.

"The policy is quite clear - taking children to their nearest school. We have got to look at exactly how that is done and how this is implemented."

The issue, which has already been to the scrutiny committee on three occasions, will return at the end of the year - most likely in December - for a fresh look at both the policy itself and its implementation.

But parent campaigners who again called for three changes - an end to split villages, an end to split siblings and a spare seat guarantee - have said that is not soon enough.

Fiona Macaulay who has been involved in the campaign, said: "I think the report was very clear in what it was covering but I don't think its remit was far reaching enough.

"It needs to look at the policy itself. The policy is causing the issues, the issues need to be addressed by addressing the policy.

"Any common sense can see that that is what is going to solve the problem, and they are quick fixes.

"Certainly the siblings issue is a quick fix and its negligible.

"This is where the council need to have a little bit of flexibility in the fact that they have created a monster of a policy, okay, lets tweak it and make it fairer and better for everybody.

READ MORE: Review must only be start of changes, say parents

"December [for a review] is too late, we are going to go through another year of children being forced into the same situation.

"We need to address this now and stop it ahead of the next school year."

The scrutiny committee is to put forward a series of recommendations, which is likely to include a plea for common sense to be applied in the cases of split villages, whether the appeals process can be more responsive and a commitment to have another look at it by the end of the year.

Jack Abbott, Labour spokesman for education at the county council, said: "To wait until December means we will have another summer of chaos just like the summer we have just had.

"I think there are some very minor changes that can be made on behalf of the county council that could make a big difference to a lot of families.

"I am really disappointed that there wasn't a better commitment than December, but we will keep pushing and hopefully we can convince the Tory cabinet to start some sort of review much earlier than that."

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