Essex County Council proposed school transport policy undermines parental choice

Essex County Council (ECC) is currently consulting on proposals to change entitlement to free school transport in the county. For many of us in Brentwood it will have little impact but for most in our villages and in Ongar these changes could have a massive impact on home budgets. It would also completely undermine the concept of “parental choice” in school place applications.

The story was well covered last month in the Brentwood Gazette and in the Weekly News and, understandably, the main focus then was on the financial effect of the proposals for the council and for individuals.

Parents from Ongar have contacted Educating Brentwood for clarification of the plans and to highlight anomalies raised by the proposals. On closer inspection, it appears that the proposed local policy undermines and contradicts the drive for competition beloved of the national government.

The need for school transport, and the potential costs that parents will be asked to bear, are better known to Ongar residents than most. When Ongar Comprehensive closed in the early 1980’s provision was made to ensure free transport would be available to local parents using schools in Epping and Brentwood.

Essex CCIt is important to point out that those already at existing schools will not be affected, the impact will be felt by those selecting a new primary or secondary school from 2014. As in Ongar, the residents of Doddinghurst, Kelvedon Hatch, Stondon Massey, Blackmore and Hook End know that they can currently select from state funded schools that they are within catchment or a feeder school for without a transport cost penalty. ECC’s proposals change that situation. They are:

“proposing to remove the reference to catchment areas in our home to school transport policies and to provide transport only to the nearest school to the child’s home address, measured using the shortest available walking route, where the statutory distance criteria are met.”

This has clear implications for “choice”. By selecting a school that is not their nearest one, parents are committing to pay costs of up to £60 a month. Some have argued that it will encourage an increase in traffic as parents opt to drive their children in but for many this is not an option.

However you look at it, it clearly contradicts the stated aim of government education policy. This move will mean that any competition for pupils is skewed as there is a financial penalty for those not selecting their nearest school.buses

In the case of Brentwood there is a further complication. In May last year we wrote about Essex’s last transport policy change (“When is a faith school not a faith school” ) in which free transport was withdrawn for those selecting faith secondary or primary schools when they had a closer mainstream alternative.

At the time I was interested in the implications for those wishing to attend Becket Keys free school. I was surprised to learn that, in relation to this policy, the “Church of England school” was not considered a faith school. An ECC statement of the time was unequivocal:

“Academies fall into the same category as mainstream schools unless they are a Voluntary Aided school that becomes an academy in which case they will be classed as a faith school.  In the case of Beckett Keys (sic) we would consider this as a mainstream secondary school for the purposes of our transport policy.”

So, extraordinarily, if these proposals go ahead, those living to the north of Brentwood, and at the Marden Ash end of Ongar will actually have to pay transport costs to avoid having to send their child to an avowed faith school that conducts daily collective worship and prayer.

One of our Ongar correspondents has spoken to the local County representative who appeared unaware of this anomaly but indicated that an exception might be possible in that case. It needs to be made clear to all affected residents what the policy is.

We have contacted ECC to clarify this situation, in the meantime you have two weeks (the closing date is October 25th) in which to make your views known via this consultation page:

Stephen Mayo

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