A local authority has defended controversial changes to school transport amid growing unrest among parents.
Flintshire Council has chosen to start enforcing its policy requiring pupils to attend their nearest suitable school in order to be eligible for free transport more strictly from the start of the new academic year.
It comes after a review identified cases where those who weren’t entitled were receiving complimentary travel.
In the short term the price for non-eligible youngsters to take up spare seats on buses has been hiked up to £450 per year.
However, from July 2020 parents will be responsible for making their own arrangements to get their children to school.
The move has been met with a backlash in the county as some families say they won’t be able to afford to meet the costs and a petition launched to fight against it has been signed by more than 600 people.
It has led to the council’s leader and chief executive issuing a joint statement to all 70 councillors to outline the reasons for the decision.
In the document, Ian Roberts and Colin Everett said the authority could no longer afford to subsidise travel beyond the legal requirements and pleaded with politicians to defend its stance.
They said: “For a number of years, the council has been providing home to school transport support over and above our set policy – at our discretion.
“The council has had no choice but to now limit its support strictly to our policy.
“We have to do this to ensure that we treat everyone equally under the policy and because we can no longer afford to pay for these additional transport support services.
“Going back to our policy does mean change for some families and learners.
“We do understand the anxiety that change can cause, and sympathise.
“We ask that you take an active role in explaining and defending our position to local families who might be affected.”
Legally, the council only needs to provide free transport for secondary school pupils who live three miles or further from their nearest suitable school and two miles or more for primary schools.
It said parents of youngsters who aren’t eligible had been given 12 months’ notice to allow them to make alternative arrangements.
The authority has also reviewed the subsidies it provides to bus companies, meaning some services used by pupils who aren’t entitled will be stopped.
Meanwhile, it chose to remove free transport for children who receive it automatically because their older brother or sister does.
The council has been criticised for not consulting properly with parents, but in the statement Cllr Roberts and Mr Everett said families had been made aware of the changes on several occasions.
They added: “The council is not required to consult on these changes as the arrangements are non-statutory and there is no change to policy; however, consultation has been carried out with affected schools.
“Since September 2018 we have attended school open evenings to ensure that parents are made fully aware of the transport policy and how changes to the network may affect children who do not qualify.
“Additionally, advice was provided to all parents when completing the admissions process for their child’s school place for September 2019 that they would need to consider how to get their child to school when making their preferences, alongside the right to express a preference for admission of their child to any school.”
They said where a pupil does not attend their nearest suitable school, parents should accept full responsibility for arrangements and costs.
Families have also been advised not to base their preference on the availability of public transport, as the long term existence of services can’t be guaranteed.
By Liam Randall – Local Democracy Reporter (more here).