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Review of Suffolk school transport policy finds catalogue of errors

A catalogue of errors have been found in the launch of a controversial school transport policy last year, a new report has found.

The cost-saving policy was introduced last year, which only gave children funded transport to their nearest school if it was two miles or more away from their home.

A report commissioned at the tail end of 2019 was published this week, in which chief fire officer Mark Hardingham, who was chairing the review, outlined 19 issues the council must hold its hands up to, including a recognition that the “plan was not robust enough”, there was “unclear leadership” and “frustration across the system”.

Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House, Ipswich (15567395)
Suffolk County Council, Endeavour House, Ipswich (15567395)

Other issues included a lack of staff available to cope with the workload, software and IT issues and poor communication between the council and schools.

An increase of 450 per cent in applications left hundreds of youngsters starting school without passes, as well as issues with incorrect passes being handed out, and problems with the nearest school website.

Parents also criticised the council for having no sibling exemption, meaning some youngsters were forced to go to a different school than their brothers or sisters.

In his report, Mr Hardingham said: “For most parents, the process of applying for school travel was carried out with few or no problems.

“However, for a minority, this was not the case and they were frustrated by the impact of the policy changes, the way their application was dealt with or both.”

The review was to explore only the implementation of the new policy, not controversies around the procedure itself, although education cabinet member Mary Evans did not rule out changes if needed.

Following the publication of the report, she said: “I am taking these findings extremely seriously.

“I am committed to ensuring that the system for applying for school transport is much more effective and efficient for pupils, parents and schools in 2020 and future years.”

The report will go to the council’s scrutiny committee next week for debate, which will make recommendations on what needs to happen next.

Data obtained under Freedom of Information laws last year showed the policy had resulted in a six-fold increase in appeals, ballooning from an average of 21 appeals to 141, with parents experiencing a 71 per cent success rate.

A parent campaign was launched against the proposals when the consultation on the changes first got underway, and continued through to its implementation.

Following a host of vocal parents raising issues with spare seat proposals, split villages, and siblings being split up, a call was made for three immediate changes.

Campaigners demanded that students starting school this year who already had a sibling at another school be exempt, guarantee certainty for parents opting to purchase a spare seat to a school not deemed their child’s nearest that the seat would be available beyond just one term, and address the issue of split villages, and even split roads where children on one side of the road were considered nearer to a different school than those on the opposite side.

Those three suggestions were all rejected by then cabinet member for education Gordon Jones.

Cllr Jack Abbott, education spokesman for the opposition Labour group had raised concerns about both the policy and its implementation.

He said: “Although this report will come as little surprise to the thousands of families who had to endure an incredibly difficult summer, it does highlight a litany of problems that beset the implementation of the Conservative’s school travel policy.

“It is clear that a hardworking school transport team were left poorly resourced by a Tory administration who handed down a half-baked policy without producing a robust implementation plan.

“However, you cannot separate the fact that the farcical state of affairs we saw last year was intrinsically linked to a deeply flawed policy.

“Unless significant changes are made to the policy itself, we will continue to see these chaotic situations, each and every year.”

Parents affected by controversial school transport changes say a county council report should be just the start of work to improve the situation in Suffolk.

Suffolk County Council on Tuesday published its report into how the new school transport policy was implemented in September last year following a review led by chief fire officer Mark Hardingham, whichfound 19 failings in the launch.

Parents who experienced issues over split villages, siblings being sent to different schools and errors obtaining correct passes or spare seats have welcomed the report’s findings, but said it must only be the start of improvement work.

Tristan Wood from Edwardstone was told his 11-year-old daughter Matilda would only qualify for free travel to Ormiston Sudbury Academy despite her older brother Jamie attending Thomas Gainsborough School.

They successfully appealed the decision.

Mr Wood said: “I am grateful Mark Hardingham has listened – I welcome the fact he has realised there were failings of the leadership, and I think that’s a big part of this.

“We are the ones that have had to put up with what the council put in place and if they don’t want this to happen again they have to look at these changes.”

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