Parents speak out as school bus seat scheme faces axe in Staffordshire

Parents of students set to lose their school bus seats for good are considering quitting their jobs so they can get their children to class safely, a campaign group has said.

Young people in rural areas not served by public transport are facing lengthy walks down unlit country lanes to get to school – or forking out for taxis – after Staffordshire County Council announced it was not planning to bring back the Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme (VSS).

This allowed families not eligible for free school transport to pay for spare seats on council services but it was suspended during the coronavirus pandemic.

The county council, which launched a survey on its intention this week, says it has always warned parents they cannot rely on the scheme as it depends on demand from families entitled to free travel. The authority added that it has been burdened by new government guidance and a lack of suitable vehicles.

Councillor Jonathan Price, cabinet member for education and SEND (special educational needs and disabilities), said: “This scheme was launched many years ago by the council over and above legal requirements to help people where we could and to offset some of the costs of moving thousands of pupils by school bus.

“Recent changes to Government guidance mean that this scheme costs us money to administer and will mean that one child has a free seat, while another will pay hundreds of pounds for theirs and a third child will have no opportunity at all.

“It’s unfair, it’s costing Staffordshire taxpayers money and it’s a mess not of our making, so we propose to stop the scheme for good, as have some other counties, unless someone presents a solution.

“We’re being entirely open by telling people what we think and the reasons why, but we will listen and adapt if there is something reasonable and workable that we can do.

“Interested parents have already been told to make their own plans for September and we will continue to keep them informed.”

But the Rural School Transport Action Group Staffordshire, which represents parents of affected students, said the council has had several years to resolve the issues relating to Government regulations.

The group has also hit out at the timing of the latest announcement just weeks before the start of the new school year. It is now taking its complaints about the suspension of the scheme to the Ombudsman.

In a statement the group said: “Prior to suspension VSS had been free for 10 months, which now appears to be as a direct result of SCC not adequately preparing for Passenger Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations (PSVAR) introduced 21 years ago. It has become clear that PSVAR prevents the council charging for seats on school transport if the vehicles do not comply with the regulations.

“It is clear that Staffordshire County Council failed to ensure their transport fleet is compliant, despite having many years to do this and in our opinion have let down young people by effectively making it impossible for them to access education, unless their parents work school hours.

“Whilst as a group we accept it is necessary for there to be an eligibility criteria, it is important this criteria recognises the specific needs of children living in rural areas, where there is no public transport available to access as an alternative to the VSS. Sadly public bus subsidies have been cut by SCC in recent years and community transport in rural areas has failed to receive any investment, leaving it now non-existent.

“We understand that the VSS is a non-statutory provision by Staffordshire County Council, which is why as parents we were and continue to be more than happy to pay for the service. Our group fully agree that it is the parents’ responsibility to ensure their child attends school and it is important to make clear that an important factor in us sending our children to the schools and colleges they are at was that there was transport available, via the VSS.

“A large proportion of the children who used the VSS have done so for many years. To suddenly remove this lifeline for rural families, without giving a reasonable period of notice, is not fair or transparent and we feel is discriminatory, as distances of 3+ miles to walk to school through country lanes alone is not safe for a young person.

“Some parents are planning to give up work to bridge the gap, which will obviously have a financial impact on already struggling families. As a group we are also concerned about the emotional effect it will have on our children who will no longer be able to travel to and from school with their peers and on occasions may ultimately miss out on attending school.

“We feel that our children have, through no fault of their own, missed enough of their education over the last year and a half and we do not feel they should be disadvantaged further.”

Around 300 families are affected by the council’s plans to not reinstate the scheme.

One mum said: “My son has attended Alleyne’s in Stone since Year 9 using a seat on the school bus under the vacant seat scheme. He is due to leave in September 2022.

“Due to the scheme being paused we are no longer allowed to pay for a spare seat, leaving us with no other alternatives to get him there and back each day. It has been suggested I move to another school, which I think is terrible considering he leaves school in less than 12 months.

“I am a specialist nurse and my husband works at the acute hospital, so reducing our hours in a pandemic or giving up work is not an option we want to take. What makes our situation worse is that our daughter – living at the same address – is entitled to travel on the half empty bus each day to Alleynes’s without any issue and free of charge, as she was assessed as being entitled to the scheme.

“Looking back historically in the media it seems that the council have tried to scrap the vacant seat scheme many times and this time seem to be digging their heels in that there will be no turnaround.”

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