School transport appeals skyrocket from 23 to 141 after new policy introduced
PUBLISHED: 07:30 30 October 2019
The number of parents appealing school transport decisions has undergone a sixfold increase as a result of controversial changes introduced this year.
Data released under Freedom of Information laws showed that between July 1 and October 18 each year there had been an average of 21 appeals to school transport arrangements at Suffolk County Council.
But for the same period this year that figure had ballooned to 141 - more than six times higher.
Of those, 112 had already been decided with 80 of those going in favour of the parents appealing - a 71% success rate for parents, while just 32 went against those appealing.
As of October 18, there were 29 appeals still waiting to be heard.
It comes as the first year of controversial changes to the school transport policy have been introduced, meaning funded transport will only be provided to families' nearest school so long as it is three miles or more away.
Some parents have raised issues with the policy and its implementation, with issues of split siblings who already go to different schools, split villages and delays in passes being issued among those to have been raised.
But Conservative cabinet member for education, Mary Evans, said the increase in appeals was not a result of the implementation of the new policy.
She said: "This was the first year of the policy so it was inevitable that the number of appeals would increase significantly.
"Whilst I recognise that the implementation was far from ideal, this is not directly linked to the increase in appeals.
"We welcome appeals and treat every case very seriously; many appeals were based on the suitability of walking routes which had to be assessed.
"It would have been impossible to review every route in the county prior to implementation so this was done as and when appeals came in.
"When some routes were assessed they were found to be unsuitable and therefore appeals were successfully upheld. Other appeals have been based on consideration of families' exceptional circumstances on a case by case basis, it was made clear throughout the consultation phase that this would be necessary.
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"I announced an independent review of the implementation of the new policy. The review will include the appeals process and any improvements which could be made. It will also look at resourcing."
The increase has resulted in the committee having to meet fortnightly instead of monthly just to get through the appeals, with many of the routes having to be walked either by the committee or an independent safety contractor.
Reaction: Labour group
Labour education spokesman Jack Abbott said: "These startling figures underline the chaos these school bus cuts have caused.
"Not only has this had an enormous impact on families, but it has been a huge strain on council staff and resources too.
"Families are winning their appeals time after time and exposing the systemic flaws in the Conservatives' awful policy.
"This month parents and campaigners proposed common-sense changes to the policy which would have brought immediate respite to families and dramatically reduced the number of appeals.
"It was, therefore, really disappointing that these were rejected out of hand by the Tories who failed to represent the concerns of their residents, yet again.
"The review into these dreadful school bus cuts can't come soon enough."
Reaction: Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group
Penny Otton, leader of the Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent group at the council, said: "It's really clear to me that Suffolk's new school transport policy isn't fit for purpose.
"Not only is the policy itself damaging and divisive, but this new data reveals that families are actually being wrongly denied transport under the policy.
"Over 70% of appeals this year have been decided in favour of parents - but they shouldn't be forced to go through the appeals process in the first place.
"Appeals are such a stressful and emotionally draining experience for parents and children, and it isn't fair for Suffolk County Council to put families through this ordeal simply because they can't implement their own policy properly.
"I would really question whether this new policy is actually going to save the council any substantial sums of money, as they have continually claimed it will, or whether all of the chaos and heartache they have caused will be for nothing."