Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet agrees phased approach to new school travel policy

Controversial plans to cuts to school transport were yesterday approved by Suffolk County Council.

The changes, which were opposed by more than 80 per cent of people surveyed, will be implemented on a phased basis from September 2019

It will mean that pupils will only receive free transport to their nearest school from their first year.

It comes just a day after Thurston Community College pleaded with the cabinet to ‘listen to people of Suffolk’. It says that it will lose hundreds of pupils if plans for school transport cuts go ahead

It was the second of three options considered by the public during a consultation and was opposed by more than 80 per cent of those surveyed.

Cllr Matthew Hicks, Leader of Suffolk County Council said: “We can be in no doubt that we face significant financial challenges across the organisation. There are difficult decisions to be made as part of this and every effort is made to understand the issue, consult with our communities and listen to the views we receive to understand the impact of any decision we take. We are not alone in facing theses difficult choices, every council in Suffolk and across the country faces an ever reducing budget.

“To protect our statutory services and continue to offer such a wide range of services to Suffolk’s residents, we need to look at the policies surrounding school and post-16 travel which were introduced a long time ago. If we chose to do nothing, the cost of school and post-16 travel would increase to £45million a year in the next decade and this is something we simply cannot afford.

“The recommendations, which have been approved by Cabinet following such a comprehensive consultation process through which we have listened to the concerns and considered the views of service users, schools and other stakeholders do consider how changes would impact communities and the education of children and their families.

“It has been tough, but I believe the balance is right. We now have a school travel service which is much more affordable, sustainable, and able to meet the growing future demands of Suffolk.”

The recommendations agreed include:

  • Providing children aged 4-16 years old with transport to their nearest school with an available place, but phasing in the policy from September 2019. This would only apply to children starting a new school, or moving home, and would be based on the current minimum distance criteria (i.e.: over 2 miles for those under 8 years old and 3 miles or over for 8-16 year olds) (Option 2 from the consultation).
  • Giving priority to Suffolk schools, allowing those whose nearest school is over the county boundary the option to choose transport to their nearest Suffolk school if they meet the criteria (an enhancement to Option 2 of the consultation)
  • Providing travel for 4 year olds, known as ‘rising 5s’ (an enhancement to Option 2 of the consultation)
  • Requiring parents whose children qualify for funded travel to opt in each year, reducing the number of seats paid for by the taxpayer but not used
  • Offering students who are nearest to a three-tier school the option of travel to the nearest two-tier school, if they meet the criteria
  • Retain the current Post-16 Travel policy, (in line with Option 3 from the consultation).
  • Offering unallocated seats on school buses for pre and post-16 students to buy on a first come, first served basis at £750 in September 2019 with phased in increases of £30 per term (£90 per year) to reduce the public subsidy Suffolk County Council provides.
  • Continue with the current cost increase of £10 per term (£30 per year) for unallocated seats to pre and post-16 students with special educational needs  (in September 2019 this will be £690)
  • Implementing a revised individual exceptions policy for both school and post-16 travel
  • Working with schools and communities at a local level to implement a range of local solutions, e.g.: changing school start and finish time, putting in place hub collection points, ride and stride schemes and increasing the size of the vehicles used.
  • Agreeing the anticipated overspend in the 2018/19 budget will be funded from the council’s reserves
  • Providing an additional £3.025 million for the school travel budget from 2019/20 onwards. This will help the service cope with increasing demand forecast in the next decade
  • Allocating £4.7 million from the council’s reserves to fund the new policy being phased in over seven years and reduce impact on families
  • Reviewing the inflation and demand pressures annually
  • Continuing to implement a series of savings to reduce the cost of transporting children with special education needs
  • Establishing a group of stakeholders to monitor the impact of the new policy