Parents and children staged a drive to school protest today against Suffolk County Council’s controversial plans to change school transport policy.
Schools including Westley School, Horringer Court School, County Upper and Thurston Community College saw larger amount of cars at their gates this morning.
The proposed changes would see children only receive transport to their nearest school, which could see 3,700 children lose their free school transport and have to pay or move schools.
Meanwhile, the county council has moved to reassure parents that it will ‘continue to meet its statutory responsibility to provide funded school travel to the nearest suitable school regardless of whether it is a two or three tier school’ following concerns raised by a parish council.
One of the parents involved in the protest was Paul Doyle, from Hargrave, who took his son to Westley School today.
He said: “This protest just shows how driving in will not only affect the children and their parents, but people on the estates near the schools who will have more cars parked near their houses, affecting their morning routines too.”
Mr Doyle’s son normally gets a minibus from Hargrave to the school and he fears this could be one of the services axed.
He said: “My concern is for the children’s education, we get told all the time that it is important and that they must come to school, but if they can’t get there due to transport cuts- how will that affect their education?”
Another protestor Gillian Champion said: “I think the protest shows the strength of feeling there is amongst parents about these changes in a very visual way. With the predicted cost of a place on a school bus being £960 per child per year many families will not be able to afford that and most likely be forced to drive the children to school themselves.
“School transport is not a perk for parents but a necessity in rural areas and also offers a greater public good in keeping cars out of the town at peak times.”
The county council is consulting with parents on three options over the future of school transport as part of the authority’s plans to save money, after it was revealed that £21 million of tax payers’ money is spent getting children to and from school every year.
Option one would make all changes to school travel at once in September 2019, option two would phase in the changes year by year as a child joins or moves schools and option three would make no changes to school travel but require savings from other council services.
Concerns were raised about proposals, outlined in the county council’s consultation document, for the Bury St Edmunds area where the majority of schools operate a two-tier education system except the Bury St Edmunds All-Through Trust which runs a three-tier model.
The council consultation document on the policy, said: “We would provide free school travel to children to and from the nearest suitable two tier-school, if it is located more than the statutory walking distance from their home.
“This would be provided even if there is a three-tier school located nearer to their home address.
“This is on the basis that we made the decision to operate a two-tier education system in Suffolk at the time of the School Organisational Review.”
Parents of pupils at Barrow Primary School, which is part of the All-Through Trust, raised concerns about the issue at a meeting of Barrow cum Denham Parish Council on Monday (February 5).
They were concerned the changes ‘could cost them up to £960 per annum if they did not qualify for free school transport and that ‘Barrow children were being discriminated against because the local primary school was a member of the Bury St Edmunds All-Through Trust’.
In a letter to members of the county council’s cabinet, Graham Judge, parish council chairman, said, based on the consultation document, parents and children in the parish would be ‘unfairly discriminated against’.
He said: “We would ask you that, whatever final decisions you make in regard to school transport, you amend your proposals to remove any references to children in a three tier system being treated differently to those in a two tier system.
“Hopefully, common sense and fairness will prevail, but we will not hesitate to take this further should you insist in implemnting your discriminatory proposals.”
Viv Hughes, chair of governors at Barrow CEVC Primary School, told the Bury Free Press: “The proposals are clearly going to remove free home to school transport for the majority of Barrow Primary School parents to their follow on schools.
“We will be making our objections to option one and two known to Suffolk County Council via the consultation process.”
Steve Boor, chairman of the All-Through Trust Board, said: “The letter from the chairman of Barrow Parish Council seems entirely appropriate and is something which the trust is also examining.”
Cllr Gordon Jones, Suffolk County Council cabinet member for children’s services, education and skills, said: “I’m grateful for the opportunity to clarify this misunderstanding.
“The county council is currently consulting on three options for the future home to school transport policy. I can reassure everyone, including Mr Judge that under each of the options the council will continue to meet its statutory responsibility to provide funded school travel to the nearest suitable school regardless of whether it is a two or three tier school, as long as it is located more than the statutory walking distance from the home address.
“The school and post-16 travel consultation is still open.
“We have already received a significant amount of feedback to the consultation, including a number of alternative suggestions for solutions to providing affordable home to school transport.
“This is greatly welcomed and will be carefully and thoroughly considered by Suffolk County Council’s Cabinet in June 2018.
“I would like to thank everyone that has responded to the consultation so far and encourage those that haven’t, to read the proposals and complete the survey at: www.suffolk.gov.uk/schooltravel by February 28.
“This is an opportunity for all Suffolk residents to have their say about how council tax is spent.”