Council proposes controversial school transport changes

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Warwickshire County Council's Shire Hall headquarters in Warwick.

Controversial proposals which could see thousands more parents pay for their child’s transport to school have been put forward by Warwickshire County Council.

The authority is currently consulting on a number of potentially divisive changes to its school transport policy, saying extreme financial pressures are forcing it to take action.

Headteachers in Stratford District have been quick to give their views on the measures being proposed, with some expressing concern about the impact on parents and pupils.

The council’s plans include all over 16s now paying for transport, and a reclassification of some walking routes which are currently unsafe (and therefore qualify for free school transport) as safe.

Across the county 1779 children currently receive free transport to school on the basis that the walk from home to school, or home to pick-up point, is considered unsafe for an accompanied child.

The council justifies this change by explaining that in some cases improvement works would be carried out to make such routes safe, adding that a reassessment of the routes using national road safety guidance has meant that some routes can now be reclassified as safe.

Elsewhere the authority is seeking to change its definition of ‘nearest qualifying school’ which currently allows free school transportation to the pupil’s priority school or the school which is physically closest to where the student lives.

Instead nearest qualifying school would simply mean the school reached by the shortest available route that is over the statutory walking distance.

Another proposal involves changing the eligibility criteria for children with special educational needs (SEN) to qualify for free travel.

The change would mean SEN pupils would only be offered free transport if they are attending their nearest suitable school and are travelling over the statutory waling difference or they live less than the walking distance and have mobility issues which mean they would not be able to make the journey without assistance.

In an attempt to mitigate any problems these changes could cause, the council is also proposing to offer independent travel training to youngsters, to enable them to use public transport to get to school or walk.

Such training, which the council is currently discussing the details of, would at first be offered to pupils in Year 9 and above before being rolled out to other age groups.

Commenting on the council’s proposals, John Sanderson, principal at Chipping Campden School, said: “While I recognise that the driving factor behind these education transportation proposals is the continued squeeze on local government finances, I can’t help but think that many will see these changes as an additional tax on hardworking rural communities.

“The message to parents from central government is that parents have the freedom and flexibility to choose the right school for their child. The reality is that this choice now comes at a cost and in some cases could inhibit young people’s choice to even continue their education post-16.”

Gavin Saunders, headteacher at Shipston High School, said: “Our priority is safe travel to school and if we feel there is anything here which could compromise that safety, it will be clear in our response.

“Any reclassification of unsafe routes to safe should be done entirely objectively, money shouldn’t come into it. As far as finances are concerned, Shipston is a popular school and if parents want their children to come here, I don’t want that choice to be affected by concerns about costs.”

Paul Hyde, headteacher at Alcester Academy, added: “This could affect parent’s decisions concerning where they send their children to school. In my opinion it would be wrong to use this as financial leverage to remove that parental choice.

“Grammar Schools have a huge catchment area and I think these proposals would affect most of the children who go to these schools.

“In the past the nearest qualifying school still enabled free transport to another priority school of the type you required, for example a faith school or a grammar school. What they are proposing appears to remove this option.

“Addressing the point about safe routes, I would be interested to know how many of these routes which could now be considered safe, have actually been improved since their last assessment and how many are now only considered safe because of a change in guidelines. You could have the situation where pupils will have to walk down exactly the same route that was previously considered unsafe.”

The consultation closes on 2nd November at midnight, to take part visit www.askwarks.wordpress.com