Free School. Free Travel.

The EADT reports today that children attending Stour Valley Community School, the new free school in Clare, are continuing to receive free bus travel from Suffolk County Council.

Suffolk County Council have a web page that has their home to school transport policy that clearly covers what is supposed to happen with transport for free schools and academies.

This states:
The general policy of the county council is that free transport is provided only for children of compulsory school age (5 years up to 16 years) who: 
  • are under 8 years of age and live two miles or more from the school; 
  • are 8 years of age and over and live three miles or more from the school.
Transport will normally be made available to the catchment area school or, if applicable, to a suitable school which is nearest to the pupils home....
Transport to Academies 
Where existing schools “convert” to Academy status, transport arrangements will be made in accordance with the above criteria. The catchment area of the school will be as defined by the local authority at the date of conversion. 
Transport to “Free Schools”
Free Schools, where they are established, are additional to the existing pattern of schools in an area. In the case of such schools no catchment areas are in place and therefore the local authority will provide transport to the school in accordance with the above criteria where it is the nearest school to the student’s home. (my emphasis)
So under this policy free transport would be provided to Clare for pupils living more than 3 miles from the school where Stour Valley is the nearest school. Children who live nearer to, say, Sudbury Upper School or Samuel Ward in Haverhill would not qualify.

Click on the map to make it bigger
Now apparently this policy has been challenged by the DfE and Stour Valley on a somewhat curious ground that the school's catchment area is effectively the whole country. What is particularly unfair about this claim is that Suffolk County Council is going beyond its statutory requirements under the Education and Inspections Act 2006 by adding the catchment area criteria. The law requires free transport where children:
  • are between 5 and 16 years old
  • are attending their nearest suitable school
  • live further away from the school than the statutory walking distances (2 miles for pupils under 8, and 3 miles for those aged 8 plus)
The County Council explain their actions by suggesting it is outside of their control:
Our published policy of providing transport only to Stour Valley Community School if it is the nearest school has been challenged by the school and also by the DfE on the grounds that it does not treat the free school in the same way as other academies. 
We therefore have been required to put temporary arrangements in place for the school years 2012/13 and also for 2011/12. We have refunded families who, in the current year, were paying for their transport but who are entitled to free transport under these temporary arrangements.
They don't state who has required them to do this. Green county councillor Mark Ereira is reported saying:
"the council’s transport U-turn was blatantly unfair and accused the Government of attempting to ‘bribe’ people into free schools."
But the Head of Stour Valley Community School Christine Inchley, claimed this would continue throughout the time the students were at the school:
“All students who would previously have been within either the Samuel Ward Academy or Sudbury Upper School catchment areas, will receive free transport to SVCS. Transport will continue to be provided free of charge throughout the students’ time at Stour Valley.”
Now I must declare a personal interest here. My son attends an academy school 10 miles from where I live and we have to pay for his transport there. This is fine and we accepted this when we decided to send him there. However in identical circumstances we would get free transport to Stour Valley Community School. My son's academy school does not have a catchment area either. This is clearly completely unfair and indeed last year my son's travel increased by 20% due to the withdrawal of the Explore Card by the County Council because, apparently, they "could not afford to continue it".

With advantageous admissions arrangements, extra capital funding, free bus travel and even no Ofsted inspections for at least two years it seems the Government is determined to ensure that free schools have every advantage over established local schools however unfair that may be.
Stour Valley Community College 2513122622751594817

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