3,700 Suffolk students could lose free school buses

Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich
Suffolk County Council's headquarters at Endeavour House, Ipswich
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Suffolk County Council plans to consult parents on a ‘fairer’ school transport policy which would see 3,700 pupils losing their right to free transport.

The aim is to cut costs on a budget that, at £21.5 million last year, was £3 million over budget.

Legally, counties must provide transport to the ‘nearest suitable school’ if the distance is more than 2ml for under eights or 3ml for eight to 16 but Suffolk provides it to pupils living in the ‘transport priority area’ (TPA) of free schools giving some a choice of places.

The 3,700 (3.5 per cent) on the TPA option to a school not their nearest would lose the right though 2,400 of those could have transport if they moved to the nearest school.

But Gordon Jones, cabinet member for children’s services, education and skills, said in cases where the nearest is full they should qualify for transport to the next nearest.

Suffolk County Council says 88 per cent of students, 93,000, make their own travel arrangements, 5.8 per cent, 6,100, will be unaffected by changes because they go to the nearest school, as are the 1,700 special needs pupils.

Cllr Jones said: “There are anomalies with TPAs which were instituted with the first free school to give parents the chance to choose those.”

He said those schools were now established enough to no longer need that support, though the council will consult them on travel plans.

The proposal in Bury St Edmunds, where special travel arrangements are in place because of school reorganisation, is the county will continue to offer travel to the nearest two-tier school in addition to the nearest suitable school.

It will also recognise the effect of St Benedict’s Catholic School being on a split site, so students retain free travel when they change sites.

Other changes include opening school bus services to fare paying passengers and ceasing subsidised travel for 1,100 over-16s.

The county also wants to use rights of way in calculating the shortest walking routes, as several other counties do. Suffolk does not currently use them, though last year it used a bridleway between West Row and Mildenhall to exclude some village children, after it had been surfaced to create a cycleway.

Cllr Jones said the law allows the council to do that but accepted not all rights of way would be viable routes.

“In consultation these are the types of questions we want to come in,” he said. “We’ll be looking at all rights of way, but if parents want to query the viability of a route, they can.”

If the consultation is approved by cabinet on Tuesday, it will start on October 2.