March: what has been happening in Suffolk

Suffolk’s School Transport Consultation   This finished at the end of February. I hope that Woodbridge Town council put in a response, as I aAsuggested in my report last month, bearing in mind the impact these proposals will have on everybody in the town.

I obviously responded with my own concerns, and held an awareness-raising stall in the Woodbridge Thoroughfare the Saturday before the consultation finished. This resulted in 25-30 new submissions. Additionally, Suffolk County’s LibDem Green & Independent Group put in a group response, which I attach (below).

Concerns raised over accountability and transparency of Suffolk Public Sector Leaders Board   The Suffolk Public Sector Leaders Board (SPSLB) is made up of council leaders and chief executives from across Suffolk, as well as the PCC, chief fire officer and representatives from Suffolk’s Clinical Commissioning Groups. Some of these are elected and some, as you can see, are not. The SPSLB controls a large pot of money, made up of £7.447m from the Suffolk business rates pool and £3.23m of central government funding received as part of the Transformation Challenge Award. 

SCC’s Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group are very concerned about the accountability and transparency of the SPSLB. Its meetings are held in private with no minutes; and neither residents nor councillors are made aware of the group’s decision-making processes or decisions, financial or otherwise. Given the significant amount of money it controls, this secrecy is  concerning.

At the end of January, the LDGI group met with the Interim Chief Executive at Suffolk County Council to query why there is so little accountability within the SPSLB. I have been informed that, on the basis of our queries, the SPSLB will be reconsidering its governance arrangements. I will keep you informed of any further updates.

Swallows/Martins Nesting at Woodbridge Station I have been raising awareness about the loss of swallow/martin nesting at Woodbridge station after works done by Greater Anglia to the station last year – and the installation of bird spikes over the last weeks. The matter was brought to my attention by a constituent who wrote to Greater Anglia only to be told that there was nothing that would be done to change the status quo.

After some publicity on social media, radio, tv, and EADT, Greater Anglia have agreed to look at replacing the spikes with netting and to add nesting boxes. The fact that the bird spikes are doing nothing to deter feral pigeons (the reason Greater Anglia have given for installing them) may have something to do with this. The rail company will be talking to the RSPB.

Hopefully this means that – after the sad interruption last year – our Woodbridge station swallows and martins will be back this year

SCC’s “Raising the Bar”schools strategy: a ‘next phase’?    SCC’s Cabinet has approved Suffolk’s Raising the Bar 2018-20 strategy: the third phase of Suffolk’s school improvements programme. This began in 2012 and is focused on improving educational standards throughout Suffolk. We are told the new strategy will focus on three priorities:

1. Exceptional leadership and governance across the education sector
2. Excellence in teaching and learning, driven by system led improvement and innovation
3. The best opportunities for every child and young person

The strategy also includes an ambitious goal to place the education system in Suffolk among the top 25% nationally. No other “shire” authority has achieved this, and the report acknowledges that it would likely take several years to reach this goal.

This seems to be a case of smoke and mirrors as the strategy signally fails to address the fact that currently Suffolk Schools performance continues to be extraordinarily poor – as it has been for the last decade.

SCC’s scrutiny looked at this performance last week with special emphasis on our county’s dismal maths results. Interestingly, LA schools in Suffolk do better than Converter Academies and 11% better than Sponsored Academies. However, currently Suffolk is ranked 9th out of 11 similar Local Authorities and – as the administration would prefer we should forget – currently 143rd out of 151 across the country. In fact, only 71 out of 243 Suffolk schools are above national for both attainment and progress.

I am concerned that no new funding has been allocated to this phase of the ‘Raising the Bar’ programme. The goals of the ‘strategy’ are very ambitious considering quite how little progress the county has made in recent years. They will not be achievable without adequate investment. I question whether the Cabinet are fully committed to improving educational outcomes in Suffolk.

Supporting adolescents on the brink of care:  an “outcomes-based contract”  Suffolk’s Cabinet has agreed to set up a new outcomes-based contract, to provide intensive therapeutic support for adolescents at the edge of care via a private service provider. The idea is to reduce the need for and costs of adolescents coming into the care of Suffolk County Council, by providing intervention services that seek to keep children safely with their families.

Payments will only be made if children are not taken into care, or are returned to their families.

The contract will be funded by a Social Impact Bond: this means that private investors will provide the start-up capital and running costs for the service, and will receive a return on investment if the service is successful at keeping children out of care. A similar contract and service exists in Essex, and a small number of local authorities across the UK are beginning to implement similar contracts

I am concerned about the use of a payment by results contract when vulnerable children are involved, given the risk of putting profit ahead of the wellbeing of these children. Suffolk County Council have assured me that the authority’s team of social workers will oversee the service and prevent this from happening, but the administrative costs of doing this properly could be substantial.

The contract is due to be awarded in Summer 2018, starting from Autumn 2018.

Drones to support ‘blue light’ incidents  It has been announced that emergency services across Suffolk would have access to two Small Unmanned Surveillance Aircrafts ( drones), developed and funded by Suffolk Resilience Forum for use across the county.

The drones will be used by Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, Suffolk Constabulary, Suffolk County Council and Suffolk Lowland Search and Rescue and Norfolk & Suffolk 4×4 Response as part of a multi-agency Air Support Unit. They will provide aerial surveillance support for these emergency services and voluntary organisations.

My County Councillor Surgery dates
My (unique) regular open-access monthly surgery continues unbroken on the THIRD SATURDAY of every month, at Woodbridge Library 9am-11am. It is now coming up to the 10th year. Surgery dates for the next few months are:
• 17 March 2018
• 21 April 2018
• 19 May 2018
• 16 June 2018
These days there tends to be little breathing space from start to finish, which often overruns by half an hour to an hour. I am finding that peoples’s concerns are covering an ever-wider range of issues as services are further cut.

The Liberal Democrat, Green and Independent Group strongly opposes both Options 1 and 2 and can only support Option 3. However, we believe there are viable alternative options, which could be implemented alongside “doing nothing” as part of Option 3, that have not been adequately considered or included within the consultation. Furthermore, we are extremely concerned that vital information pertaining to impact assessments, financial implications and SEN transport spend has been omitted from the supporting documentation.
We object to the way some questions in the consultation have been phrased and contend that the consultation is biased against Option 3. Therefore, we have chosen to provide our response in an alternative format. The table of contents below outlines our response and highlights the consultation questions that each point corresponds to.
We trust that the points raised will inform the debate going forward.
Sincerely,

David Wood (Leader), Councillor for Peninsula
Andrew Stringer (Deputy Leader), Councillor for Upper Gipping

Trevor Beckwith, Councillor for Eastgate and Moreton Hall
Elfrede Brambley-Crawshaw, Councillor for Beccles
John Field, Councillor for Gipping Valley
Richard Kemp, Councillor for Melford
Robert Lindsay, Councillor for Cosford
Inga Lockington, Councillor for St Margaret’s and Westgate
Victor Lukaniuk, Councillor for Brandon
David Nettleton, Councillor for Tower
Penny Otton, Councillor for Thedwastre South
Caroline Page, Councillor for Woodbridge

Contents:
1. Why the LDGI Group strongly opposes Options 1 and 2 (Questions 1, 2, 3, 4)
2. Issue with the consultation – lack of extensive impact assessments (Questions 2, 4, 21)
2.1. Educational attainment
2.2. Congestion and pollution
2.3. Rural school viability
2.4. Costs of additional appeals
3. Issue with the consultation – unclear financial information (Questions 2, 4, 21)
4. Issue with the consultation – conflation of SEN and mainstream transport spend (Question 21)
5. Alternative solutions (Questions 5, 6, 16, 21)
5.1. Focus on SEN transport
5.2. Work with Suffolk schools to develop solutions
5.3. Lobby central government for more funding

1. Why the LDGI Group strongly opposes Options 1 and 2:
We strongly oppose Options 1 and 2. Both policies would have a hugely detrimental impact on rural families, children and schools.
If Option 1 was implemented, parents living in rural parts of Suffolk, whose children were no longer eligible for free school transport, would be faced with a terrible “choice”: (1) move their child to the nearest suitable school in order to continue receiving free transport, and thus disrupt their child’s education; (2) pay for transport to their child’s current school, with an average cost of £960 per year; or (3) drive their child to school.
Furthermore, the Department for Education’s Home to School Transport Guidance (paragraph 53) states:
“Good practice suggests that the introduction of any such changes should be phased-in so that children who start under one set of transport arrangements continue to benefit from them until they either conclude their education at that school or choose to move to another school. Parents make school choices based on, amongst other things, the home to school transport arrangements for a school, and any changes might impact adversely on individual family budgets.”
Option 1 disregards this guidance entirely.
Although Option 2 will not result in the same immediate changes to school transport entitlement as Option 1, the long-term ramifications of Options 1 and 2 are the same.
It is clear that a nearest-school only policy would create a “postcode lottery”. Those children fortunate enough to live marginally closer to an outstanding school with varied GCSE choices would be at huge advantage to their neighbours living marginally closer to a school requiring improvement. Villages and communities would be split up, with numerous school buses serving a single village. Even siblings may be divided between different high schools, if the phased changes in Option 2 are implemented. Feeder primary schools, such as those in the Thurston Pyramid, would no longer be able to successfully prepare their children for the transition to a specific high school – because these Year 6s will be scattered between a number of high schools.
Furthermore, there is no doubt that the policy changes will disadvantage working parents and low-income families the most. Many parents will simply not be able to afford to pay close to a thousand pounds for their child’s bus pass. If a family has more than one child, this becomes an almost insurmountable obstacle. Similarly, not all families have the option to drive their child(ren) to school. Even assuming that parents have access to a car, the working hours required of many jobs simply would not allow parents to drive their children to and from school.
Increased congestion and pollution is extremely likely under both policies, as more parents will be forced to drive their children to school in order to avoid disrupting their education. The protest organised by Thurston Community College parents on 8 February 2018 demonstrated the chaos that this would cause.
Changing to a nearest school only policy will have a direct impact on pupil numbers, as outlined in the extra information pack. Dramatic reductions in pupil numbers will have a severe negative impact on schools, and consequently on the pupils who attend these schools. School budgets will be less than expected, staff redundancies will be necessary, and some schools may struggle to remain viable. These policy changes will therefore impact all rural children, not simply those who will lose their entitlement to free school transport.
2. Issue with the consultation – lack of extensive impact assessments:
We are very concerned that extensive impact assessments have not been undertaken prior to this consultation. We would argue that Suffolk residents are therefore not in a position to judge the merits of the proposed policy changes, as the potential negative consequences of these changes have not been fully investigated.
In particular, there has been insufficient examination of the impacts on educational attainment, congestion and pollution, school viability, and the cost of additional appeals.
2.1 Educational attainment
When Suffolk underwent the SOR, it was argued that moving schools was disruptive and damaging to a child’s educational attainment. It is therefore concerning that there is no mention whatsoever of the negative impact these policy changes could have on educational attainment in Suffolk.
Under Option 1, the education of thousands of children will be disrupted if their parents are unable to afford a bus pass or drive them to school. They will be forced to move to their nearest school, irrespective of whether the school offers the curriculum or specialist support that they need. For children in the middle of their GCSEs, any disruption could severely harm their chances of achieving the grades they deserve. Children who are about to start their GCSEs may suddenly be told that subject choices are no longer available to them at their new school. Children who struggle with anxiety or developing friendships will undoubtedly flounder if they are uprooted once again.
Option 2 will also be detrimental to educational attainment. Primary schools will no longer be able to work with specific secondary schools to smooth the transition process, because their children will be moving on to a number of high schools.
At a time when Suffolk County Council is attempting to “raise the bar” across the county, it is incredibly concerning to see that no attempt has been made to understand the impact these changes could have. Changing the school transport policy will make a mockery of our “Raising the Bar” strategy.
2.2 Congestion and pollution
Suffolk County Council have failed to survey parents to understand how they will respond to a policy change. We do not know how many might resort to driving their children to school, and there has been no attempt to model the impact of policy changes on congestion and pollution. Thurston Community College, however, undertook a survey of parents to find out what their response would be to the loss of free school transport: the vast majority replied that they would choose to drive their child to Thurston Community College, rather than pay for a bus pass or disrupt their child’s education.
If this is repeated across Suffolk, it is obvious that a policy change as outlined in Options 1 and 2 will severely hinder our aspiration to be the “Greenest County”. Rural roads will be heavily congested twice a day, causing chaos for all residents. This will likely cause extensive damage to the county’s road network, which is already in desperate need of repair. Increased car use will lead to increased pollution and damage to our rural landscapes.
2.3 Rural school viability
Many schools face a huge change in pupil numbers, both increases and reductions, if either Option 1 or 2 are implemented. For schools facing reductions in pupil numbers, there will be simultaneous reductions in their budgets: this loss in student numbers represents an immediate cut in income to Thurston Community College of £750,000 annually and will mean that more than 20 staff will need to be made redundant, with Suffolk County Council liable for the redundancy costs (estimated at £410,000). Thurston expect pupil numbers to reduce by 50% within five years, with a devastating impact on the school and many more redundancies. The total redundancy cost, for 64 teaching staff and 53 associate staff, is estimated to be almost £2.4 million. As a maintained school, these costs would be met by Suffolk County Council.
In addition, Thurston Community College have announced that the reduction in the number of students on roll feeding the sixth form, together with the loss of bus routes making it impossible for students to get to Beyton, will result in the closure of the bespoke sixth form centre.
2.4 Costs of additional appeals
It is stated in the consultation documentation that “Exceptions to the general policy would be considered by the Individual Needs Travel Group panel” on a case-by-case basis. Given the number of children, particularly from low-income families with working parents, that will be impacted by a change in policy, it seems likely that there will be a dramatic increase in applications for an exception to the policy if Options 1 or 2 are implemented. The administrative costs associated with this could be extensive. We believe that the potential impact of this needs to be explored, in order to fully understand the financial implications (whether positive or negative) of a policy change.

3. Issue with the consultation – unclear financial information:
The consultation documents imply that the rationale behind a policy change is to make savings from the currently overspent home to school transport budget. We are told that Option 1 has the potential to achieve the greatest savings, but no convincing evidence has been produced to support this statement.
There is very little clarity over what savings are expected or how they are to be achieved. Over the course of the pre-consultation and consultation periods, various savings figures have been suggested. These have ranged from £200,000 to £3,000,000. However, there is a distinct lack of financial modelling in the consultation documentation.
We are therefore concerned that members of the public have not been provided with the full financial information needed to make an informed judgement about the proposed changes.
Given this lack of clarity and information, we strongly oppose implementing either Option 1 or 2 until the full financial implications are calculated and explained to members of the public.

4. Issue with the consultation – conflation of SEN and mainstream transport budgets:
Throughout the consultation, Suffolk residents have been told that Suffolk County Council currently spends £21 million on home to school transport, and that this has been increasing in recent years. However, there is no explanation that this is the combined total spend on both mainstream and SEN transport. In fact, the budget pressures Suffolk County Council faces are due to increasing costs of SEN transport, whilst spending on mainstream home to school transport has been steadily reduced. Despite this, the proposed policy changes focus almost entirely on mainstream home to school transport.
Whilst we are not saying that provision for SEN transport should be reduced, we do think it is vital to acknowledge that this is where the challenges are. It is the cost of SEN transport that is putting pressure on the budget, so this is where we should be focusing our energy. We need to come up with innovative solutions to this challenge, which protect free transport for children with special educational needs whilst at the same time addressing this cost pressure. Unfortunately, the consultation ignores this issue entirely.

5. Alternative Solutions:
As previously stated, we strongly support Option 3: to “make no changes to the school travel policy”. However, it does not necessarily follow that the only way to achieve this is to “make savings from other services provided by Suffolk County Council”. There are alternative options available to the council.
5.1 Focus on SEN transport
SEN transport is not the focus of the consultation, and so there has been minimal exploration of the ways that our service could be improved and made more efficient. We believe that this is an area that should be explored in detail by officers and councillors. This needs to be done before any decisions are made on a new school transport policy that could adversely affect thousands of children in rural Suffolk.
5.2 Work with Suffolk schools to develop solutions
Although local solutions are included in the consultation document, not enough work has been done with affected schools to explore the potential for these solutions to provide substantial efficiency savings. Furthermore, these local solutions only make sense when combined with Option 3. They are not a suitable way to mitigate the impacts of Options 1 and 2.
Through extensive research, Thurston Community College have developed a plan that could save over £230,000 on school transport for pupils in their catchment area alone. The plan shows how this could be achieved by maintaining the council’s current home-to-school travel policy and supplementing it with truly local solutions. Some of the solutions identified include double tripping and coordinated services with Ixworth Free School. If similar plans are developed with all Suffolk schools, the saving could be extensive.
Although this would require some compromises, including increased school staffing costs and longer journey times for some students, the advantages far outweigh them. Rural children will continue to have the same choices available to them, schools will not face a dramatic change in pupil numbers, rural areas will not see an increase in congestion, and Suffolk County Council will achieve far greater savings than is likely with Options 1 and 2.
5.3 Lobby central government for more funding
Maintaining the current school transport policy does not mean savings must be made from other areas of the council. The alternative is to raise income which will offset any future spending increases.
In comparison to many other councils across the country, Suffolk are in a privileged position: there is a large Conservative majority on the county council, and the majority of Suffolk MPs are Conservative. Both MPs and Cabinet members should be taking every opportunity to lobby their Conservative government for more funding for rural transport.
A Suffolk eight-year-old is expected to walk three miles before they are entitled to free school transport. Few London students live three miles from school, yet all London children and young people get free transport 24/7. Why should young people living in rural Suffolk be expected to make do with so much less? Suffolk is a rural county, and we must protect our rural residents.

2 thoughts on “March: what has been happening in Suffolk”

  1. The school journey and car pollution issue. The Thurston solution to the school transport problem sounds like the only solution mentioned other than maintaining school transport for all. What about the rest of our region? Are we all to suffer this disruption to our lives twice daily. You have exactly stated the ramifications of the unfairness of the proposal. Have you had any positive acceptance from the County Council Cabinet that they understand this? Is anything happening? Of course it will cost money and I dont see why country ratepayers should have to pay for it when Londoners children have it free.

  2. Not so much as a reply from the Town Council, Vanda. It’s as if the issue is of no concern to those Woodbridge elected 🙁

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