Early in 2014 I was contacted by parents in Wivenhoe and Elmstead about school transport. The Essex County Council is having to cut back. From September, pupils starting at a new school will only get free transport if they choose the nearest school.
This affects families all over Essex, but particularly in Wivenhoe and Elmstead. Their community school is traditionally The Colne, in Brightlingsea. For many, this is not necessarily their closest school, which is Colchester Academy in Greenstead. I have been asking the County Council to review this decision for the past year. Parents and local councillors of all parties have been running a vigorous campaign.
One resident recently wrote to me to explain the policy had divided their village. Half get free school transport to attend their first choice school. Half will have to pay perhaps £700 per year per pupil to go to the same school on the same bus, or attend a different school if they cannot afford to pay, because they live one street further away from the first choice school. Families on benefits will still get free transport.
The problem is not easy to resolve. The County Council spends £24m on home-to-school transport. It has been more generous than most education authorities. But the 1944 Education Act lays down strict rules on how the money can be spent. This is way out of date and must change. Most of my fellow Essex MPs agree. I have already raised this with the Education Secretary: school transport needs reform. We are considering whether councils should have more flexibility about how they spend their school transport money. Perhaps the money should be just given to the schools in relation to their pupil numbers and where they live. They would spend this money more intelligently.
Meanwhile, I have written to the Leader of the Essex County Council. This will cause some families unacceptable financial hardship, and injustice. It removes the choice of school from lower income families. The only savings to be made will be at the expense of families who can afford to forgo their child’s free school transport to pay for the transport to the school they want for their child. If everyone in Elmstead and Wivenhoe opted for free school transport to Colchester Academy, the County Council would make no savings at all.
A demand for the Council to suspend this policy for a year, and have a review has been refused. But we have to find a better way of addressing this problem. When the Essex County Council Leader, David Finch, comes to the House of Commons, we will continue this discussion. We know the Council must find savings, but we want this money better spent.
As schools break up for the summer holidays, many parents will be concerned about the coming school year. We must continue to work for a solution to this problem.