New school transport policy in Suffolk under fire over impact to lower-income families
Controversial changes to school transport in Suffolk, which have been branded “unfair” to lower-income homes, are facing further scrutiny, as parents try to figure out how to get their children to their preferred school.
Residents of Nayland questioned Suffolk’s cabinet member for children’s services education, Gordon Jones, this week, asking what can be done to support struggling families, who may face a significant yearly bill for a school bus seat from September.
Under the county council’s new policy, which is intended to yield long-term savings, students can only receive free travel to what is deemed to be their nearest school geographically.
If they want their child to go to a different school, they must pay £750 per year, or £250 per term, for the transport.
The changes have resulted in splits emerging in villages such as Nayland and Boxford, where pupils in primary school are having their free travel eligibility divided between different high schools, despite existing feeder relationships with specific schools.
At the council meeting on Tuesday, Tanya Page, of Stoke Road in Nayland, appealed for help, stating the lump sums to fund a bus seat for her son are unaffordable.
“My son has a place at Thomas Gainsborough School for September, along with almost all of his classmates at Nayland Primary School,” she told councillors.
“We can see the bus stop that would take him there from our house, but my address is now considered nearer to Hadleigh High School.
“It is absolutely clear that I cannot send him to a different school to his friends, as it is not in his best interests.
“However, I don’t have a car, so I can’t drive him, and I can’t afford to pay for a spare seat on the bus on a termly basis, as my partner and I are on a limited wage and need to pay in instalments.”
Ms Page explained that this situation means she now faces having to pay an even greater amount over the year to bus company Chambers, so she can pay for her son’s seat in smaller weekly increments of £27, and asked Cllr Jones: “How is this fair?”
In response, Cllr Jones, who also lives in Nayland, said the council had a provision for half-termly payments for low-income households, and he offered to meet with Ms Page to discuss options.
The county council has also previously stated it will to broker bespoke solutions for parents and schools, through the Suffolk Brokerage Service.
The new travel policy has come under increasing fire since the launch of the Suffolk School Bus Campaign, which has urged the council to abandon the subsidy changes.
Following the council meeting on Tuesday, Ms Page said she did not feel she received a clear answer about options to help low-income families pay for school transport, and that she would be following this up with Cllr Jones in the next couple of days.
“I don’t think the council realise there are families that are struggling,” she told the Free Press. “They are assuming we have money.
“It’s a ludicrous situation. But I have to do what’s best for my son.”
Ms Page also claimed that in a previous communication with Suffolk County Council, it had been suggested that she could ask Thomas Gainsborough School (TGS) for help with paying for the travel there – a suggestion which she said had been surprising.
“I wouldn’t even have the nerve to ask them,” she added. “I think it’s a very cheeky suggestion.
“I don’t know where they think the school have got the funds to pay for a bus pass for every child. It would cost them thousands.
“There’s so many children this is affecting in all the different villages, I don’t think it would be possible. And why should the school use its funds to pay for our child’s bus pass?”
Fellow Nayland resident and former Labour Parliamentary candidate for South Suffolk Emma Bishton also questioned Cllr Jones over the county council’s funding for subsidised school travel at Tuesday’s meeting.
She asked the council what representations it has made to the Department of Education to try and increase funding for school transport, in light of the relative high cost of providing education in rural compared to urban areas.
“It is absolutely clear that schools do not have the resources to support school travel, and nor should they be required to take on the responsibility, which quite clearly sits with the local authority,” she said.
Cllr Jones responded that the money for home-to-school transport comes from the council’s base budget and not the dedicated school grant from the Government.
He added: “We have had meetings for the Secretary of State for Education and he is aware of the concerns, but there is currently, as I understand it, no plans to change, although we would hope that provision is made in the Comprehensive Spending Review and the Fairer Funding for Shire Counties, both of which are under consideration.”
Meanwhile, another concerned parent, who lives in Edwardstone, told the Free Press her daughter is in a similar predicament, as she is only eligible for free travel to Hadleigh High School (HHS), despite her older sister already attending TGS.
The mother-of-three, who wished to remain anonymous, described the new school transport policy as being akin to “an extra tax”, particularly as she faces redundancy from her job at Delphi Diesel Systems in Sudbury, which is set to close next year.
“Because I’m losing my job, it’s just such a stressful time for me at the moment,” she said.
“My husband is self-employed. If he got sick, how could we pay? It’s like an extra burden.
“This is not just splitting villages up. It’s splitting families up. My daughter is very shy and needs to be with her sister.
“She’s got a place at TGS. Now it’s just about getting her to school. The bus literally goes by my house.”
Suffolk County Council has stated that the new policy is being brought in, following a public consultation last year, to ensure there is the correct balance between supporting those already in education and keeping school transport sustainable and affordable going forward.
For full details about the travel policy, which takes effect in September, go online to www.suffolkonboard.com/schooltravel.
To view the Suffolk School Bus campaign website, visit suffolkschoolbus.org.
More by this authorThomas Malina