Opposition attempts to block Suffolk’s free school transport cuts

A last-ditch attempt to prevent Suffolk county council from making drastic cuts to its free school transport provision has been made by opposition councillors.

The drastic cuts, which are expected to have a “significant impact” on pupil numbers at some schools in the county, were unanimously approved at a meeting of Suffolk’s Conservative cabinet on Tuesday.

However, opposition including Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent councillors announced on Thursday that they would be referring the decision back to the council’s monitoring officer, who will have to decide if it was fair, justified and proportionate.

The planned cuts would see free transport only given to pupils who attend their nearest school, rather than any school whose catchment area they are in.

The new rules follow the minimum service that must be provided by law and were due to be phased in from September 2019, initially only affecting children who move house or start a new school.

Since 2015, 29 out of 36 county councils have reduced their expenditure on home-to-school transport, with more than 29,000 pupils losing out. In areas where the nearest school is single-sex or religious ethos, the shift has been particularly controversial.

Matthew Hicks, who leads Suffolk county council, said the cuts were made due to “significant financial challenges” and after a “comprehensive consultation process”.

However, Jack Abbott, the council’s opposition spokesperson for children’s services, said the “strength of feeling” about the proposals “transcends party politics.

“This is ill thought-through, poorly formulated policy decision must be reversed to ensure educational attainment in Suffolk is not negatively impacted by this decision,” he added.

A review into the new policy has warned it will cause upheaval at several schools, including Thurston Community College which could lose 124 pupils – eight per cent of its total.

More than half of the pupils in its catchment live nearest to the Ixworth Free School, which opened in 2014 and was last year rated as ‘requires improvement’. Ixworth now expects to grow by a third, taking in 73 more pupils.