The flurry of Free schools in Suffolk has caused Suffolk County Council to review its transport-to-school policy. This happened after the DfE insisted that SCC was legally obliged to offer transport to free schools.
Suffolk provides bus transport to those living 3 miles or more (less if it has been proven that there is no safe walking route) to the existing catchment schools. In the case of Stour Valley Community [free] School the county is currently providing free pupil transport to either the existing catchment schools (Samuel Ward in Haverhill, Sudbury Upper School in Sudbury) or to Stour Valley; however it has made it clear that this is not sustainable in the longer term. In a rural county, school transport is a very significant expense, and four more free schools (albeit that two of these are yet to receive funding agreements) are set to open here this September.
Rather than review the transport policy for the whole county, SCC have come up with proposals for each free school area for use from 2013. Each is customised to its locality but the basic premise is that pupils be provided with free transport to their nearest school only NOT to their school of choice, and they propose ‘Transport Priority Areas’ to determine which school is the nearest (between the new free school and the existing catchment school). In the case of Beccles, the new and existing schools are less than 3 miles apart, so the proposal is for them to share a transport priority area. However in the other areas, free school transport priority areas have been proposed for parts of what ostensibly remain catchment areas for existing schools.
So, if a free school is the nearest school, this is the one you will get free transport to. To all intents and purposes, this is a new catchment, just not in name. Transport to the existing catchment school, if you choose this instead, will cost around £150 per term. And the real sting in the tail is that SCC have admitted that they can’t guarantee that there will in fact continue to be buses going to the existing catchment schools even if parents choose to pay. (This is because the Seckford Foundation are proposing different timings for the school day in Beccles and Saxmundham).
The likely results of all this are 1) that pupils will end up having to go to the free schools even if they don’t want to and (in the case of the Seckford schools even if the EBacc curriculum does not meet their needs), 2) that pupils won’t be able to go to their existing catchment schools which will necessarily reduce in size and 3) that sixth form attendance could be significantly reduced if there are no buses going to the existing schools which provide sixth forms (the free schools don’t).
So much for free schools expanding choice. And so much for SCC’s avowed intent, in closing middle schools, that high schools have a pupil roll of around 1200 because this makes for cost-effective schools able to provide a balanced curriculum.
Ironically, SCC’s transport proposals have drawn criticism from all sides including the Seckford Foundation. But it is difficult to see how this can be resolved satisfactorily given the lack of funds at SCC and the DfE’s apparent enthusiasm for opening new schools in Suffolk. However this situation could have been avoided had Suffolk County Council opposed the establishment of these free schools on the grounds that there is simply not the demand in this rural area, and that they would disrupt a schools re-organisation process already underway. Not politically difficult, simply expedient. Instead the taxpayer will pay whilst our children suffer.