The school transport roadshow moved right down to the South of the County last night to Clare on the Essex border. The venue was the only free school actually open in Suffolk, Stour Valley Community School which was previously Clare Middle School (and before that Clare Secondary Modern School).
There is a considerable amount of building work going on at the school where nearly 5 million pounds is being spent.
The proposals for Clare and the surrounding area are for three “transport priority areas” with transport only provided to the school that school or the nearest school (see my briefing for a map and more details).
This event had the smallest audience of only 25 people but then again the school does not currently have many children as it has openly just opened.
The issues here are similar to Saxmundham and Leiston and parents rightly recognised that the priority areas are catchment areas in all but name and that the proposals will mean less “choice”. Many parents quoted the Government’s assertions that free schools were about providing additional parental choice and seemed genuinely surprised when the County Council told them that they had received no money from the DfE to pay for the additional transport needed.
Without this transport there is no actual choice whatever the intention of the policy. Doubtless it works fine in London where another school could be just another stop or two on the tube or on a bus that runs every 10 minutes.
Some parents pointed out that when the school was a Middle School buses where shared to keep costs low with children dropped off at Clare and then others staying on to their High School. This was not in the County Council’s plan due to different start and finish times of the schools but Christine Inchley the Headteacher of Stour Valley said “as new kid on the block we are happy to be accommodating” and agreed to discuss this with the County Council saying that this is what she had done when the school was opened. This is welcome news and I hope Seckford are listening and follow her lead.
The County Council made what I thought was a persuasive point that running school transport when you do not run admissions is not easy. But maybe if everyone takes Inchley’s approach schools could work together and co-ordinate transport and admissions arrangements with the County Council.
I ended up in the somewhat strange position of defending the County Council at the meeting. Faced with schools they did not plan, no additional funds - indeed a budget cut from central government. I do not see how they can be expected to continue to pay for Stour Valley parents to have school choices - sometimes paying for transport both ways over 20 miles - that other parents do not get in the rest of the County.
As you can imagine this did not go down so well with those in the room. They want to keep the choice they have and some did not appear too bothered who paid or if it was fair.
Read my Live Blog from the meeting
Read my Briefing on school transport in this area
Read my post Free School, Free Travel on the background