Posted: 28.07.20 at 18:31 by Jason Noble Local Democracy Reporter
Hundreds of parents in Suffolk, including many on the Shotley peninsula, are facing uncertainty over how their children will get to school in September as spare seats on school buses cannot currently be offered to them.
Suffolk County Council sells spare seats on school buses to families who want to send children to a school that isn’t their nearest.
But more than 200 families who would ordinarily have a spare seat cannot currently buy them from the county council due to a lack of guidance from central government on safety measures in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
Conservative cabinet member for children’s services at the council, Mary Evans, said: “I appreciate how unsettling this is for parents who are preparing for the new school term.
“We are waiting for the Department for Education to issue official guidance about the measures we need to put in place for school travel in September.
“I am extremely disappointed we have not received guidance ahead of the school holidays.
“We have not yet been able to invite parents to apply for spare seats but once we receive the official guidance and have all our safety measures in place we will review if we are in a position to open up to applications.”
The council said it has contacted 225 families who were due to have a spare seat this year, although some parents say they only found out on social media.
It is understood that social distancing is not a requirement on closed contract school services, which means the one-metre-plus rule will not need to be enforced, but some school services run on commercial routes available to the public where social distancing will still be required.
Some parents have reported that using public bus services could add hundreds of pounds to the cost of getting their child to school, while there are also fears about those who do not drive or are not able to organise their own transport.
Suffolk County Council honoured the contract payments to bus providers during lockdown to help keep them in business in return for greater flexibility when pupils go back, but it is not yet clear if that means extra buses can be run.
Fiona Macaulay, from the parent campaign group against changes to school transport introduced last year, said she did not know how her daughter was going to get to sixth form in September while the spare seat option was not available.
“The spare seats issue would not come up if children could attend the same school as their siblings, so I think this is one area where Suffolk County Council is really letting families down,” she said.
“The council says it is parental choice but it is not. You are not going to send your child to a different school.”
The council changed its policy last year so that funded school transport would only be available to the nearest school, not other catchment schools, meaning siblings already attending a school that was not the closest would be split up from youngsters who started school from September last year.
Spare seats on those routes were then available for parents to buy who wanted to keep their children together until the Covid-19 situation meant the council was not able to offer those seats.
Mrs Macaulay added: “It’s when parents who are willing to pay are still getting the runaround that it is a kick in the teeth.”
Jack Abbott, education spokesman for the opposition Labour group, said: “Education has really been an afterthought throughout this crisis, with the government dishing out last-minute directives and failing to deliver consistent and considered help to families, schools and councils.
“I can understand councillor Evans’ frustration – for a county with seven Tory MPs, a number of who sit in Boris Johnson’s cabinet, the support has been woefully lacking.
“However, that does not mean that Suffolk County Council should sit and wait for the government. They should start processing new spare seat applications now so they are immediately ready when they become available and they should also look to increase capacity rather than simply withdraw seats.
“The council also needs to be much more proactive in communicating with families to avoid another repeat of last summer. Stress and anxiety levels rose as there was near radio silence from the council and I’m seeing similar issues being raised again.”