Parents could face large bills for school transport

Getting your child into the school of your choice can be fraught with stress and emotion.

Now many parents in Suffolk say proposed changes to the school transport system will be another obstacle in their way.

The creation of Free Schools is forcing the county council to reconsider how it provides school transport. The council is proposing that instead of paying for transport to a child's catchment school, if a free school is closer, it will pay for transport to that instead.

This affects existing schools in Leiston, Haverhill and Mildenhall who would all see a reduction in the number of pupils qualifying for free transport to their school.

The idea is not proving popular in Saxmundham, which currently falls in the catchment area of Leiston High School.

If the plan goes ahead, children here would no longer get free transport to Leiston. A poster promoting the new Saxmundham Free School in the town has been vandalised; its slogan reading, 'Your Child, Your Choice' has been altered to read, 'Your Child, No Choice.'

Sign
A vandalised sign promoting the free school in Saxmundham Credit: ITV Anglia

The row has had the unlikely effect of uniting parents who support Saxmundham Free School and those who oppose it, with both groups saying the county council's proposal will remove parent choice.

For Sarah Pastor who has worked hard to set up the free school in Saxmundham, the move would be a set back. She told Anglia News:

"The free School was meant to provide another choice for parents in this town and surrounding villages, the current proposal cuts this choice back again, so it's disappointing."

– Sarah Pastor, Saxmundham Free School supporter

Thirteen year old James Gadd from Saxmundham wants to go to Leiston high School because it offers more vocational courses than the proposed Free School. His mother Susan was dismayed to find herself no longer in the catchment area for Leiston.

James should still get free transport to Leiston as he starts in September and the changes are proposed for 2013, but Susan Gadd says many parents will miss out:

"We're very angry. All of a sudden the education authority, if they succeed with these proposals, will be limiting our choice.

"We will be limited to sending our children to Saxmundham Free School or alternatively paying an extra 150 pounds per term if we want the children to go to Leiston."

– Susan Gadd, Saxmundham Parent
Leiston High School
Leiston High School Credit: ITV Anglia

New Free Schools could also impact the free transport provided to Samuel Ward Academy in Haverhill and Mildenhall College of Technology.

The Headteacher at Mildenhall, Susan Byles, says the new transport policy will be bad news for parents:

"A Free School is meant to be an additional choice, not a replacement for the existing school. Parents' choice will be restricted by the financial cost of having to pay for transport to a different school to the one on their doorstep."

– Susan Byles, Headteacher at Midlenhall College of Technology

The county council however, says providing free transport costs 1000 pounds per child and they can't afford to spend more.

Councillor Graham Newman adds that spending more on school transport would put other services at risk:

"If we open up lots of new possibilities for people to have free transport, that's a thousand pounds for each new child.

"And what's happening is, government grant is coming down - it's gone down by 28 percent over three years - our council tax is fixed so we can't put our council tax up, and the money to pay for this comes straight out of your council tax.

"If we're providing this, then we can't be providing adult care, social care, fostering all those things - so it really is a question of weighing up the balance."

– Cllr Graham Newman, Suffolk County Council

Parents in Suffolk have until June 1st to take part in the public consultation on the proposed changes to school transport.

Outside Suffolk, the results of that consultation will hold implications for any county where transport to Free Schools has to be accommodated; Luton borough Council have said they may have to revisit their overall school travel policy at some point in the future.