When getting to school splits the village

The full impact of Suffolk County Council’s new home-school transport policy is becoming clear. As reported in this week’s East Anglian Daily Times,  families in my village and many others are being punished by the council for no other reason than living on the wrong street. The new policy (which calculates distances to school to the nearest metre, using home postcodes), will divide primary school classmates by providing them with transport to different schools, against their parents’ wishes.  Last week I attended Suffolk County Council meeting to ask a public question about the new policy.  I asked whether the council was aware that their new policy was creating splits in some villages, where children are now being offered free transport to different schools. (This is a particular problem for children going to secondary school in September). The response of the councillor responsible (SCC Cabinet member for Children’s Services, Education and Skills) was that there might be some short-term increase in costs where it will result in two buses going to different schools instead of one bus going to one school, while the policy is phased in. But he also said that because some parents already choose  to go to non-catchment schools, split villages weren’t considered an issue. He suggested that parents and schools might come up with ‘local solutions’ for the ‘two-school’ problem including parents doing lift-shares and schools offering their own transport.

He seemed to be either conflating or confusing different things, so I asked again, pointing out that parental choice and the county’s legal obligations to provide school transport are separate issues, and outlining the problem in Nayland. (After all, parents only choose to send their children to non-catchment schools when they can afford to do so.) It so happens that two of the county councillors live in this village. According to the Council’s nearest school checker, one lives in one of the streets now designated for Hadleigh High School (with which our primary has no links and to which there is no bus service). The other lives in the part of the village still designated for Thomas Gainsborough School in Sudbury (our historical catchment school, with good links to our primary school and on a public bus route). The split occurs at our primary school, which for historical reasons has two postcodes; one is now apparently ‘nearer’ to Hadleigh and one to Thomas Gainsborough. Yes really.

You’d think the sensible response to this kind of inefficient and unfair situation would be to say “we need to look at that unintended consequence”, yet the councillor responsible merely reiterated his view that because some parents choose to send their children to grammar schools over the county border, we are already a ‘split village’ and that by implication, the resulting chaos is not a concern.

The result of this policy is that in villages like Nayland, some parents will be forced to pay upwards of £750 per child per year in order for their child to do nothing more unusual than moving up to secondary school with their classmates. For these families, the policy amounts to an opportunistic extra tax. The alternative is that children in families for whom this is unaffordable will have to go a different school from their classmates – child and family effectively being discriminated against for having less money than others.  It has to be noted that the council seems to have little understanding that £750 (minimum per child) is a significant sum of additional money for young families to find. Either way, the council’s new policy amounts to a postcode lottery. And all of this was both predictable, and predicted.

There’s a further complication for the schools concerned. If pupils end up going to schools they did not choose to go to instead of the school they already have secured a place in, those schools won’t get the budgets they are expecting this year. And relationships with feeder primaries are totally disrupted, making it much harder to plan smooth school transitions for children moving to secondary school in future years.  (Schools are funded on a per-pupil basis, and schools are organising their provision around the numbers of pupils they are expecting to receive come September.)

I was astonished by the lack of interest – let alone sympathy to the affected families – shown by the council in response to my questions. The councillor responsible for schools should be aware that schools don’t have spare management time or budget to put on buses. And the council should surely be more interested in what happens IN schools – and therefore be wanting schools to use resources on education, not petrol. If the county council was actually planning to review school catchments and admissions, including for schools still in LEA control – it should do so based on some actual analysis of the need for school places relative to the locations and types of schools, not just redefine school relationships as an unintentional consequence of reducing access to school buses. And it ought to consult with schools themselves.

I don’t know whether the council is wilfully confusing parental choice with its legal responsibilities for school transport,  or simply doesn’t understand the policy framework.  Either way, it shows little regard for the wellbeing of children anxious they won’t now go to the same school as their classmates, for their parents, school budgets, or the environment. It couldn’t be clearer that councillors are hoping parents will just pick up the bill for a responsibility that sits with the council.

Several years ago, the county council set about the contentious and messy process of closing all the county’s middle schools with the goal of smoothing the transition from primary to secondary school, because, they said, this would help them to achieve better educationally. It seems they no longer care about the pupils, given the indifference they are showing to parents and pupils caught up in a policy blunder brought about by the poor implementation of a bad policy.  Please, Suffolk County Council, there is still time to pull your head out of the sand. Postpone the implementation of this policy and go back to the drawing board.

Emma Bishton

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