Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet has today (Tuesday) approved controversial plans that will see free transport restricted to pupils attending their nearest geographical school.
Following a year of debate, the proposals were carried despite strong opposition from some headteachers, governors and the Oxfordshire School Bus Action Group (OSBAG), which staged a protest outside county hall before the meeting.
Under the proposals, free transport will be provided only for pupils’ nearest geographical school within the county from September 2015 – although those receiving free travel under the current system in September this year will continue to do so until they leave school.
The cabinet also approved an increase in charges for concessionary travel and post-16 travel by ten per cent from September 2014, and by five per cent for the next five years from September 2015.
Addressing the meeting Councillor George Reynolds, representing Wroxton and Hook Norton division, expressed concern some schools will find themselves oversubscribed.
He said: “I’m not surprised but disappointed that the recommendations are virtually the same as they were last July. One point is what I call the numbers game. We’re asking pupils to go to schools which we know are full.
“There are a designated 1,300 homes in my division for North Oxfordshire Academy and 1200 new houses are to be built in the area within the next five years. That could possibly mean an extra 500 students for the school.
“Pupils might apply to NOA then be told they have to go elsewhere.”
He said other schools such as The Warriner could lose pupils and there could be a knock-on effect on primary school intake.
“The Warriner could lose 200-300 pupils if they go to other schools, and one primary school in my area could lose two of its three [intake] villages which would be devastating.
“This wasn’t made clear in any of the consultations.”
He continued: “The plans would hit the poorest amongst my villages, those who haven’t got a second car and can’t afford to take their childern to school rather than the ‘four wheel drive brigade’.”
OSBAG representatives addressed the meeting questioning whether the council would save the hoped for £1-2 million, suggesting only £250k would be saved as the council would have to put on extra buses to take pupils to nearest schools if their first choice school is full, and to cater for so called ‘split villages’ when different parts of villages are nearest to different schools.
Answering questions at the meeting council officers admitted plans are also afoot to make savings from the £7.9 million taxi bill the council shells out each year to transport school pupils with special educational needs.
OSBAG campaigner Sue Moon accused the council of “failings” in the consultation process and said the group planned to take OCC to a High Court judicial review.
She said: “The campaign has drawn into the spotlight alarming failings within the democratic system of the government of this county,”
But Cabinet member for finance, Arash Fatemian, said he believed the council would save more than £250,000 and the policy would help protect the council in the future from shelling out funds to provide free transport for academies which can set their own catchment areas.
Council Leader Ian Hudspeth backed the policy saying: “What we have before us today is a policy of change that would save the council a considerable sum of money.
“Should the cabinet decide not to change the policy then the savings would have to be found from another service which a different group of residents will be equally passionately committed to protect.”
Council officers hinted they might have to look again at the decision not to close any children’s centres, if the savings could not be made from school transport.
Campaigners expressed their “disappointment” at the decision, but have vowed to fight the decisions by taking the council to judicial review.
– For more reaction see this week’s Banbury Guardian, on sale Thursday