We are required by law to provide transport to schools based on distance and age criteria and in order to decide whether a student is eligible for free county council transport, we use catchment areas. These catchment areas are well-established in Suffolk; in general they work well and are understood by students and families in the area.
Under the Government’s free school initiative, any new free schools established in the county would not have a catchment area but the legislation relating to home-to-school transport requires that they are treated the same as all other schools (in particular academies) when it comes to transport. Following the opening of the free school at Clare, and proposals for new free schools at Beccles, Brandon and Saxmundham, we have had to review the arrangements we have in place for home-to-school transport in these areas.I have already written two blog posts about transport, back at the start of March I wrote Free School, Free Travel about the unfair situation at Stour Valley Community School where families get free travel to the free school where other families would have to pay to exercise the same choice elsewhere. At the end of March I wrote Suffolk Free Schools: No Choice without Transport using material I obtained from a freedom of information request.
The DfE seem to have completely underestimated the importance of transport. Without it there is no choice in a rural area but providing it is really expensive.This isn’t London with the tube and free bus travel for children. Indeed last year the County Council removed the discretionary cheap travel scheme for children (the Explore card) claiming it could not afford it.
Put simply the current travel privileges for free schools is unsustainable. Schools like Stour Valley Community College (with the support of the DfE) have insisted they have no catchment area and so have undermined the catchment areas that as Cllr Newman says work well and are understood by students and families in the area.
So the County Council are forced into having to create a whole new system for the areas with free schools in order to make transport work in those areas and to allow it to maintain the existing system in areas as yes unaffected by free schools. It has published no less than four consultation documents for Stour Valley, Brandon, Beccles and Saxmundham areas. However the worst is yet to come as Thurston pyramid (with the proposed Ixworth Free School) looks to be the biggest nightmare and largest bill.
The new proposed solution is based on the idea of transport priority areas. As an example this is the proposal for Leiston and Saxmundham (although if you are colour blind like me you won’t see much!):
|You can see the maps for all four areas on Wikisuffolk|
Indeed these initial consultations are important for all of the County as they are going to set a precedent for the whole county as the consultation documents says:
• The existing arrangements in Suffolk are operating successfully, and therefore changes should be restricted to those areas of the county where free schools are proposed, or are in existence, i.e. Clare (Stour Valley Community School), Beccles (Carlton Colville for the years 2012/13 and 2013/14), Brandon and Saxmundham;
• Any revisions to the transport policy should be transferable to other areas of the county if and when other free schools are proposed;
• Initially these changes would apply to transport arrangements for secondary schools only, but could be transferable to the primary sector;
• Free schools will be treated the same as other high schools / academies, and therefore in their areas they would become the ‘local school’Another round of public consultation meetings starts next week (all meetings 7pm to 9pm):
Leiston High School: Tuesday 1 MayBut it is clear the threat to all of the county is real as the main alternative proposal is to move the whole county to a “nearest school” policy the impact of which the consultation document says would be:
Saxmundham Middle School: Wednesday 2 May
Sir John Leman High School: Thursday 3 May
Beccles Middle School: Monday 21 May
Stour Valley Community School: Tuesday 8 May
Samuel Ward Academy: Tuesday 15 May
Sudbury Upper School: Tuesday 22 May
Breckland Middle School: Thursday 10 May
Mildenhall College of Technology: Monday 14 May
This solution is claimed to be “cost-effective” and “fair” but as the analysis shows the disadvantages seem to outweigh this. It looks like it is going to be an interesting debate!
As ever the situation in Beccles is even more curious. Given how close the schools are together the County Council propose a single transport area. On one level this makes sense as if a bus is going to one school it might as well go to both but it does give a huge advantage to the free school giving it the same free transport as a much larger school. However there is a further twist:
The promoters of the free school are considering making their own arrangements for transport, independent of the county council, because the daily finish times of the new school may be different from that of Sir John Leman High SchoolThis seems incredible, even more expense to be met ultimately from public funds, not to mention the waste of duplicate journeys and their environmental impact. Once again the desires of the few outweigh the needs of the many.