Labour Education and Skills Spokesperson Jack Abbott writes
Times are hard at Suffolk County Council. Another £27m is to be cut from the budget and there are many more years of cuts on the horizon. The need to trim budgets and cut costs at the whim of central government is leaving the council in an impossible situation.
Today Suffolk County Council are discussing a move to consult on changes to the home to school transport. Currently 9,500 children receive free home to school transport. 9,500 children that can attend school, get an education and have better life chances because a service is provided for them.
I understand the need to save money, but I also understand the wider importance of a good, stable school experience for children. This council went through the School Organisational Review in order to limit the changes and transitions to provide a stability for children in their school life.
The plans that the Council want to consult on are fundamentally flawed for many reasons, but I will identify three of them. First, that they cannot guarantee the savings they claim will be made actually will be made; second, that the proposals will require fundamental changes, including standardisation of school admissions policies, something that they have no control over and thirdly, that in order to implement this policy catchment areas, and therefore pupil numbers will change, thereby changing the funding levels of all schools in the county.
The paper presented by Cabinet makes huge sweeping assumptions about how the £3m saving will be made. They have analysed two anonymous areas and told us that if they extrapolate across the county they will save the £3m, but this has since been revised down to £2m. How is this an informed way to show potential savings? There is no indication of which the areas they have chosen and there is no indicated methodology for showing how they have identified the cost cutting measures. This approach is not transparent and can only lead to the conclusion that the numbers are presented to ensure it looks like there are savings of £3m. This is not the right method for deciding policy that will impact on thousands of children. A paper presented to SCC by Thurston Community College states there will only be £200,000 of savings. The business manager from Thomas Mill’s High School said the proposals would not even save that much. This is a serious charge and one that the council has not adequately responded to.
It really begs the question as to whether the cost of the changes to parents and the schools is worth the potential savings. Of course, if we had a full impact assessment we would know the answer to that question. As a member of the Children’s and Young People Cabinet Committee I asked for an impact assessment for the wider economic impact on parents as well as schools, but this report does not even take note of that. It is vital that the Council knows the cost implication of the change, the impact on parents working hours and how many parents will have to do two school runs, not one.
This leads to my second concern about schools own individual admissions policy. There are some schools, specifically oversubscribed ones, where the admissions policy will state that in order to get into that school you need to have gone to a feeder primary schools. If a parent then moves into that areas they do not fulfil the criteria for entry to their local school.
Under these proposals that child will then need to travel away from their nearest school through no fault of their own. They will then not fulfil the criteria laid out in these proposals for free transport. This one size fits all policy will unfairly penalise people living in rural communities.
To resolve this problem for the policy proposals the council will have to standardise all the admissions policies for maintained, academy and free schools, but the county council has no control over the admissions policies of academy and free schools. Standardised admissions policies will ensure that the rules are fair for all pupils, no pupil will be better or worse off than another in terms of access to the system, but is the council going to agree to do this? I would be surprised.
The mess gets worse.
My third area of concern is that the catchment areas will have to be redrawn to ensure that this policy can be implemented, but again the issues this raises are difficult and challenging. The catchment areas will need to be redrawn with regard to only the maintained schools because admissions policies for most schools cannot be altered, this then effects Pupil Admission Numbers (PAN), which in turn impacts on the amount of funding schools get. Given the cuts to school grants coming at the time this policy will take effect means schools are likely to be facing financial uncertainty caused by this council’s intransigence.
I wonder whether Suffolk County Council wants to follow this route given the situation it finds itself in. We know head teachers are furious about this and I support them wholeheartedly. Real terms budget cuts, lack of learning support and mental health provision and a complete absence of significant staff support are pushing teachers, parents and children to breaking point. I would not be surprised if this decision is the precursor to mass opposition from schools around the county. The decent thing to do is to stop this consultation before we do untold damage to children’s education and future life chances.