One community leader has branded the situation “an unmitigated disaster” after affected families were left waiting for an answer on the Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme (VSS).
Some parents have resorted to driving their children several miles to sixth form, following a school bus with empty seats they were previously able to board. And campaigners are concerned for the safety of teenagers having to walk or cycle down unlit country lanes.
Young people in rural areas not served by public transport are facing lengthy walks 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 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.
A survey on the future of the scheme closed last month, but Staffordshire County Council has yet to announce its decision.
On Tuesday Councillor Jeremy Pert, who represents the Eccleshall area, asked when families would be told the result.
Speaking at a scrutiny committee meeting he said: “If I look at what’s at the top of my post bag it’s normally potholes, flooding or highways matters, yet for weeks and months it’s been the Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme.
“For many members who are in town areas the scheme, getting those children aged 16 and over to school and further education, is probably not an issue and doesn’t even hit the radar. But for a rural member it disproportionately hits us because of the sheer volume of children who are affected in not being able to get a seat to school.
“This is compounded when they see buses going by with empty seats on them, going from where they are starting all the way to the school they are trying to get to. I think this has been an unmitigated disaster because it’s been going on so long."
The meeting was told a decision was due to be made at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, December 15.
Council leader Alan White responded: “I appreciate that Councillor Pert’s division in particular has been hard hit by the Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme survey, and indeed there have been parents in touch with the authority from your division with those issues. A decision is due imminently – this side of Christmas – so it will give parents some certainty.
“A good number of those people affected by the Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme are not far away from a commercial bus route in any event.
“There is a case for encouraging children who are not able to get onto the buses anymore to use the commercial buses in order to support those in getting to their place of education. There are some issues that have been highlighted through the course of the survey that we do need to attend to, because there are some ‘wicked’ problems relating to this and we need to be looking at these in some detail.
“We understand there are ways for children to get to school but there are going to be some hard issues for some families to deal with. We are looking at those in detail.”