What improvements have been made to the Suffolk school transport applications process?
- Credit: RACHEL EDGE
Improvements have been made to school transport applications in Suffolk, according to Suffolk County Council, following a detailed review published last year.
But fresh calls have been made for the controversial policy itself to be reviewed.
Suffolk County Council changed its school transport criteria ahead of the September 2019 school year so that children would only be eligible for funded school transport to their nearest school if it was two miles or more away from their home. For parents who wanted to send their children to a school that wasn't their nearest, spare seats on school buses would be sold to them.
But the introduction of the policy faced a plethora of problems, including a stretched team processing the applications, incorrect passes being sent out, some passes not reaching children before term started, issues with the IT system and a host of late applications putting pressure on the system.
It prompted a review by then-chief fire officer Mark Hardingham published in February 2020 which found 19 failings and came up with a series of improvements needed.
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A fresh report presented to the council's scrutiny committee last week said progress on implementing those measures was being made.
Among them include an improved opt-in process so most families receive a decision within 20 days, and earlier interventions at the start of the review and an appeal procedure if it is clear a family has exceptional circumstances.
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Other improvements include using public rights of way in calculating the walking distance to a school - which in some cases had changed the destination considered nearest for families - and the formation of a communications group featuring officers and Suffolk Parent Carer Network to help parents understand the policy.
The council said some measures such as fixing IT issues had been made prior to last year's application process which meant there were fewer problems in 2020.
Councillor Mary Evans, Conservative cabinet member for education, said: “Significant progress has been made following on from the review into the implementation of the new home to school travel policy.
"By July 2020, 99% of all applications that had been received had been processed and families received direct communication from the transport team on the progress of their application. Where a photo was received, school travel passes were sent to families in time for the start of the new school term.
“As we are all aware, the teams had to re-organise bus routes at short notice at the end of the summer holidays to ensure our children and young people travelled safely to school during the pandemic
“We are continuing to make improvements as we prepare to open the opt-in process for 2021, this includes more communications with schools and more direct communications with families."
While the review was welcomed by parent campaigners against the policy, they said changes to the policy itself were needed to stop siblings being sent to different schools, villages being split between different schools considered the nearest, and guarantee spare seats for those families.
Jack Abbott, opposition Labour group spokesman for education, echoed calls for a review of the policy itself.
"Last year, over 200 appeals were found in favour of children and their parents - this demonstrates how the Tories’ flawed policy is forcing a huge number of families through an arduous process just to get the school transport they are clearly entitled to," he said.
“Time and time again we have seen that this punitive policy needs wholesale changes, yet the Conservative administration is more interested in saving face, deciding instead to fiddle around the edges whilst families suffer.
“The issues of separated siblings, split villages, and spare seats are simply not going to be wished away and significant changes are needed to fix what is a fundamentally flawed policy."
Parents have been urged to make sure their applications this year are made in good time to prevent issues of late applications and passes being issued at the last minute.
This year parents can opt-in for school transport from March 1 with a closing date of May 31. The spare seats application process will then open from July 1.
Visit www.suffolkonboard.com/school-travel/ to find out more and apply.