Suffolk council to vote on swingeing cuts to rural school transport

Suffolk council is preparing controversial cuts to school transport that will “significantly impact” pupil numbers at schools around the county.

The council’s cabinet will vote on Tuesday on whether to introduce changes that will mean children only get free transport if they attend their nearest school – the minimum service that must be provided by law – rather than to any school whose catchment area they live in.

Last month the County Councils Network warned than over 20,000 pupils in rural areas across England had lost out on free school transport, as 29 out of 36 county councils have reduced their expenditure on home-to-school transport since 2015.

Widespread opposition to the move means Suffolk council will aim to phase the change in from September, and it will initially only affect children who move house or start a new school.

A review into the educational impact of the policy has warned that even this phasing is likely to cause huge upheaval to schools.

One of the worst affected is Thurston Community College, as more than half of the pupils in Thurston’s catchment area live nearest to the Ixworth Free School, which opened in September 2014.

The analysis warns Thurston’s “school population could be significantly impacted” and suggests it will lose eight per cent of its overall pupil numbers next year, a fall of 124. Ixworth’s pupil population is expected to grow by almost a third, with an increase of 73 pupils.

Thurston previously warned that without phasing, as many as 812 pupils could be affected, costing it up to £3.5 million.

Rachel Gooch, a governor at Thurston, said she is “hugely disappointed” that the cuts are likely to be agreed next week.

“This policy will have far-reaching effects on the patterns of admission, which are going to cause serious upheaval for our schools,” she said. “Rapid contraction and expansion of pupil rolls is very difficult to manage and this process will continue for years as the policy is phased in.”

Suffolk county council said it has spent over £21 million this year transporting 12,700 children to and from school, overspending by £3 million. Even if the changes go ahead, it will spend £3 million from 2019/20 onwards and allocate another £4.7 million to meet the cost of phasing the policy in.

Gordon Jones, the cabinet member for children’s services insisted that the council had “listened to and taken on board feedback” about the changes.

“It’s about balance, and I believe we have found it,” he claimed. “It is important that we work together to find solutions to ensure that Suffolk has a sustainable travel policy for the future.”