Leiston and Saxmundham School Transport: Your Child, No Choice

Leiston High School SignLast night the first Suffolk County Council consultation on home to school transport took place at Leiston High School. I have already blogged about the consultation but as the meeting progressed it became evident that the situation was much worse than I thought.

What was immediately striking was the complete absence from the room of anyone actually responsible for the situation. Suffolk County Council politicians such as Education Portfolio holder Graham Newman and Transport Portfolio holder Guy McGregor stayed at home sending their senior officers into the lion’s den. As usual the Seckford Foundation were nowhere to be seen. Nor the DfE. Nor Therese Coffey the local MP.

The only politician in the room was local Tory County Councillor Rae Leighton. I say he is the local councillor but he’s actually the County Councillor for Saxmundham. Interestingly he is completely opposed to both the free school and transport plans.

Leiston and Aldeburgh County councillor Richard Smith (who actually lives in Saxmundham) wasn’t there either.

The scene was set by the County Council officers who explained that the Saxmundham Free School has not actually been approved yet and that home to school transport in the area works fine and they have no desire to change it. Parents agreed with this and whilst some accused the Council of “jumping the gun” in truth they had no choice but to do this now due to the timescales involved.

Council officers explained what had happened in Clare with Stour Valley Community School, the first free school in Suffolk to open. They said that their home to school transport policy had been “challenged” by the DfE and have ended up having to pay for more or less anyone to attend the free school.

The basic problem is that the existing policy is based on catchment areas and free schools don’t have them. So Suffolk County Council have two main options:

(a) Revert to the statutory minimum across the County (nearest school)
(b) Change their policy in affected areas

They have chosen to change policy in affected areas. This is not at all surprising as otherwise there would be serious disruption to areas that do not even have free schools. Quite possibly enough to lose the 2013 County Council elections for the current administration.

The proposals for Saxmundham and Leiston divide the area into two as this map shows:
Lesiston Sax png scaled1000
So basically if you live in the red area you get free travel to Leiston High School and if you live in the Green area you get free travel to Saxmundham Free School. Otherwise you have to pay £480 a year per child.

But it became apparent it was worse than that - and all credit to the County Council officers for answering this question in a clear, fair and accurate way - there may not be any transport at all, even if you can afford to pay. Unless there are spare spaces on a bus that is already there the County Council won’t provide transport at all.

It later emerged that this will also have an apparently unforeseen impact on post 16 education. Currently children going to sixth form in Leiston from Saxmundham pay £150 a year for transport but under these proposals there would not be any buses and the County Council confirmed they would not provide transport at all unless there were. Again just a “spare space” policy.

The free school does not even have a sixth form so quite what is going to happen in this part of Suffolk where there is little public transport and the County Council have already withdrawn discounted travel from over 16s is unclear. There appears a real risk of children not being able to continue their education.

Needless to say the pubic present were very unhappy with these proposals. Local parent David Wolfe, a barrister in Matrix chambers made a strong call to the County Council to provide free transport to both schools. Something they say will cost some £100,0000 a year.

But local parents pointed out that the County already run buses to the location of the new free school - the current Saxmundham Middle and did not understand why it would cost more. It emerged that a large reason was the plans for the free school to open at different times. Currently the opening and closing times of the school are co-ordinated so the same bus can be used for two sets of children.

Incredibly in response to a question I put the County Council admitted they had not even spoken to the Seckford Foundation about the possibility of such a co-ordinated plan. Maybe the County Council, like me, are off the Seckford Foundation’s Christmas Card list….

But the bottom line is that the current proposals make a complete mockery of the Seckford Foundations’s Your Child, Your Choice tag line. Many parents instead will have their choice to send their child to Leiston High School taken away by the opening of the free school and the consequences for school transport unless either the school does not open or the transport policy is changed

Similar posters are around in Saxmundham area, one parent threatened to change it to "your child, no choice"
It will be interesting to see if there is a different reaction in Saxmundham tonight - and if any of the politicians concerned actually turn up to defend their decisions.

See my live tweets on Wikisuffolk
Suffolk County Council Consultation 
Suffolk County Council 6532474003505847175

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