Q: When is a catchment not a catchment? A: When it’s a Transport Priority Area

Emma Bishton's picture
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.
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Sarah's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 17:48

I was under the distinct impression that Suffolk County Council did oppose the free schools - but it wouldn't have made any difference because the County Council don't have a veto regardless of the impact on other schools or the additional cost on home to school transport. It's hard to see how they could have done anything other than what they have in respect of transport because if they retained the original catchment school as the one that attracted free transport they would have been likely to have had children living nearer to the free school but not entitled to transport which would have been perverse and could have led to a situation where they would have been required to provide free transport to multiple schools for children living in particular areas - something which I'm sure they would have found difficult to afford. Counties like Suffolk spend millions every year on home to school transport so they are clearly under pressure to find a reasonable and affordable solution.

Emma Bishton's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 19:12

SCC have been trying to have a 'have your cake eat it' response to the free schools. On the one hand, as we outlined in our COMPASS response to the proposal for an 11-16 school in Stoke by Nayland, they have explained at length (but not in public) to the DfE the surplus of places in the area and given detail about the impact another school would have on falling numbers in the existing schools. They have not rescinded the paper they sent to the DfE on this in August 2010. On the other hand, they have increasingly supported the expansion of the 'parent choice' when in public and are taken by most people to be in favour of the free schools.

Some suggest that Suffolk would not be able to oppose the free schools because they are politically bound to accept them. But Suffolk is an authority whose use of public money was much in the public spotlight last year in relation to the pay of their then chief executive. So you might think they would be keen to be seen as the guardian of the public purse and encourage the government that funding for free schools is best placed in areas where there are more pupils to use them.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 06/05/2012 - 23:20

"SCC’s transport proposals have drawn criticism from .... the Seckford Foundation."

That doesn't surprise me at all.

If students are only allowed transport to a Free School, the Free School will end up with children from the poorest backgrounds who are likely to be low attaining and are more likely to have behavioural issues. If you're teaching small cohorts you have a wide range of attainment in each set anyway and this is hard enough to cope with at secondary level without adding in a significant proportion of low attaining students and students with behavioural issues.

To thrive in ordinary areas these small schools will need to actively select the children whose parents can afford to pay for transport. If they've managed to locate themselves in affluent areas which will have affluent catchments they'll be okay, but if they haven't they will face very serious challenges.

Emma Bishton's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 14:22

I asked the SEckford Foundation what plans they had to broaden their curriculum in view of the transport proposals, in order to accommodate a broader range of pupils than they otherwise appear to be planning for. They have just responded:

"The Foundation does not have any plans to alter its provision at this time.

We will be making a response to the County Council about their transport proposals. In particular we will be saying that it is inappropriate for a transport policy to affect the decision parents make about which school is right for their child."

So clearly they don't agree with the current SCC official view (offered as the reason they have not yet released a draft transport proposal for Stoke by Nayland because that school isn't yet at pre-opening) n that transport makes no difference to parents' choice of school!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 14:34

"In particular we will be saying that it is inappropriate for a transport policy to affect the decision parents make about which school is right for their child."

The fact that space, time and money exist is a bit of a problem for the Free Schools Policy which it should perhaps have considered earlier in its evolution.

It has, of course, been considered extensively in the past which is why a policy like this has never existed before.

I wonder what kind of transport policy they would like. Portals for all perhaps?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 14:40

This is an example of how policies which might work in cities with a large number of school-age children and adequate public transport don't work when transferred to rural areas where populations are ageing and public transport is poor. In Suffolk there is a situation where there are declining numbers of school-age children yet a potential increase in school places. Then there is the problem of transporting children to these schools especially if schools vary their times to such an extent that bus times can't be co-ordinated.

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