Many people in Suffolk will now be aware of County Council’s proposals to radically change home to school transport. This policy will, in essence, change the previously successful catchment system to a nearest school arrangement. This could see thousands of children forced to move school in the middle of their education which could have a severe impact on their educational outcomes, something the county council wanted to limit when it underwent its school organisational review (SOR).
Pupils, parents, teachers and, indeed Tory councillors themselves, believe this to be an incredibly damaging policy, with many long-term ramifications that have not been thought through by Suffolk County Council.
In this article, I choose what I consider to be five of the key reasons why we should oppose these proposals.
An absence of evidence
On a number of occasions, Suffolk County Council has said this change in policy is likely to lead to potential savings of £3m, but there is simply no evidence to support this claim.
‘How much is this policy *actually* going to save?’ is a question I’ve heard repeatedly asked by parents, but the council replies by saying; ‘we won’t know until we know what parents will choose to do’. This is deeply flawed approach and then presents the question; ‘is this policy really about saving the Council money?’
It’s not just the actual ‘savings’ that haven’t been disclosed. There are no economic impact assessments on parents or schools, no idea what the traffic implications of hundreds more cars on our country roads is likely to be, nor how, in practice, we are going to be able to mitigate the various problems that will arise after forcing through a large and complex change in just a year. None of the lessons of SOR are being learnt.
How can Suffolk’s residents truly make informed contributions to the consultation when various impacts are unknown? The ‘ask questions later’ stance that the Council has seemingly adopted is reckless and opaque.
Slashing school budgets
It has been repeatedly stated by the Council that this policy will only affect a small proportion of Suffolk’s schoolchildren. Whilst I would take issue with the notion that forcibly moving thousands of children is insignificant, it is also not true.
Schools are already under significant funding constraints, with another real-terms funding cut due to come into force in 2019 (the same year as this policy would come into force), yet are still required to deliver excellent education and pastoral support.
However, should this policy be approved by Colin Noble and his Cabinet, some schools could see a further dramatic cut in funding. For example, Thurston Community College could lose 812 pupils. This would equate to a budget cut of £3.8 million – this sort of cut would see the loss of 74 teachers.
Quite apart from the significant redundancy costs, this would undoubtedly have a huge impact on the breadth and quality of education that a school would be able to offer, thus inevitably impacting on all students, not just those currently receiving free school transport. I suspect that if this change was forced upon Thurston the long-term viability of the school also comes into question.
Erosion of rural communities
This is undoubtedly a policy which impacts on Suffolk’s rural communities the hardest. The cost of living for families continues to rise faster than wages and these costs can often be more acute in a rural setting.
Added to this is the uncertain future of many small, rural primary schools. Under this policy, a number of primary schools, important community hubs for rural Suffolk life, could head towards unviability in the long-term. There is also huge concern for post-16 students whose options, particularly for vocational subjects, will be limited by geography and cost.
If we want to preserve a broad range of people living in our rural communities, we need to help support the services which ensure that we can maintain a variety of people. If not, we run the risk of rural Suffolk becoming the sole preserve of wealthier, older individuals, a risk of pushing younger people out of our villages, making them too unsustainable in the longer-term.
A question of choice
These proposals withdraw the notion of choice from parents. The County is now giving parents three unpalatable choices. Choice 1 – move your child in the middle of their schooling, potentially harming their educational outcomes; Choice 2 – pay up to £1,000 per child, a cost that many families would find impossible to pay; Choice 3 – drive your child to school, in doing so, changing your working hours and adding more cars to the road. That’s assuming that you have the means to drive in the first place.
I believe that a parent should be able to have the right to choose without fear of severe financial implications.
This may not be for purely academic reasons. Some schools may excel in a particular subject, like the creative arts or sport. Some parents may choose a school with excellent SEND provision and pastoral care, or one whose culture matches that of their child.
By removing choice, you diminish the potential for a child’s education to be happy and fulfilling. This would also penalise lower income families who simply will have no choice at all.
There is an assumption that any unsettling impact caused by this policy will be unique and temporary.
Under the terms of this policy, every time a new school opens in Suffolk, it could change the status for potentially hundreds of families who may be forced, once again, to choose between an unsettling school move in the middle of their children’s education or to pay hundreds of pounds.
By abolishing the previously successful catchment system to an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all nearest school policy, this will mean that the impact is not confined to thousands of children in 2019, but could continue to 2020, 2025 and beyond.
It is clear that this policy does not offer long-term security to families or to schools but will establish a lasting, damaging legacy for our education system in Suffolk.