Over 900 Suffolk school transport applications remain outstanding
More than 900 applications for home to school transport in Suffolk remain outstanding less than two weeks before the new term starts.
Suffolk County Council data revealed there were 9,925 applications in total for home to school transport for September 2019, with 940 applications outstanding as of August 20 – around a fortnight before term starts on September 2.
Of those, 783 were applications submitted after the May 31 deadline, with around half of those late applications arriving in July or August, according to the council.
It comes as controversial changes to the school transport policy means youngsters are only eligible for free school transport to their nearest school if it is two miles or more away from their home.
Some of the applications are for parents who have opted to purchase a spare seat on a bus for a school that is not considered their nearest.
Gordon Jones, Conservative cabinet member for education, said: "I don’t want to see any child go without a funded bus seat if they are eligible for one. Our team is working tirelessly, just like they do every other year to assess and respond to all applications in a timely fashion.
"We have already processed over 90 per cent of the applications we have received and the team is working quickly to move through the remaining 940. This does include a large number of applications received after the deadline of 31 May 2019.
"Just like every other year, we must await the GCSE results before the number of available spare seats can be finalised and offered to those who have applied.
"I understand any frustration this may cause but we are working as quickly as possible to respond to each and every family to inform them of their application outcome."
What happens for those not processed on time
The target date for completion is the end of August, but the council has confirmed that 'it may be suitable to consider alternative travel arrangements for the first few weeks of term in the case that their application has not been processed in time', for those applying for spare seats.
The council said that for those forced to make their own arrangements for the start of term but had submitted their application on time, the authority was 'willing to cover all reasonable costs incurred in relation to their travel to and from school if receipts are provided'.
Following reports of incorrect passes being issued, the council said it had been made aware of only two incorrect passes being sent, which had both been rectified and reissued.
Are the council’s resources for implementing the applications up to scratch?
However, the level of resourcing for the changes has been criticised by Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott, after it emerged that just seven members of staff were tasked with processing applications – only one more than last year.
“This confirms our suspicions that staffing levels are woefully inadequate and cannot cope with the inevitable upheaval caused by school transport cuts,” he said.
“After forcing through this flawed policy out of pride rather than practicality, the bare minimum Cllr Jones should have done was to ensure that its implementation was as smooth as possible.
“Instead, hundreds of families have been left in limbo throughout the summer and council staff have been put under huge pressure as a result of his failure to plan properly.
“Extra resources are needed immediately to ensure that every family who has applied for school transport is informed before the start of term.
“This whole process has been a complete shambles – I hope Cllr Jones will now finally apologise for the distress he has caused families this summer.”
More by this authorJason Noble, Local Democracy Reporter