Changes to school transport in Central Bedfordshire could have "devastating impact" on some schools

File image of two primary school children working in class. Picture: Adobe StockFile image of two primary school children working in class. Picture: Adobe Stock
File image of two primary school children working in class. Picture: Adobe Stock
One of five policy changes to free school transport provision planned by Central Bedfordshire Council could “threaten the viability” of several local schools, a meeting heard.

A potential revenue loss of well over £2m could “bankrupt” the Harlington-based Pyramid Schools Trust (PST) and cause “immense harm” for some schools, warned its chief executive officer Steve Kelly.

Schools under the trust's umbrella include Arnold Academy and Ramsey Manor Lower School in Barton-le-Clay, Harlington Upper School and Harlington Lower School, Parkfields School in Toddington, Westoning Lower School and Sundon Lower School in Upper Sundon.

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Local authorities are required to publish a home to school transport policy, which must be made available by September 19 each year, according to a report to CBC’s children’s services overview and scrutiny committee.

This enables parents and carers to take it into account when applying for school places during the normal admissions round, explained the report.

“Proposal two on moving the requirement to nearest school, rather than catchment, will include a review of any potential negative impacts arising from implementing this and all business cases for exceptions.”

Mr Kelly asked whether the benefits of this policy change outweigh the cost and harm it would cause. “The most important aspect is the effect on pupils’ educational outcomes and their wellbeing,” he said.

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“The policy would effectively redraw the boundaries for school catchment areas and undo decades of collaboration between schools, while creating uncertainty for families.

“We estimate well over 300 pupils, who currently receive free transport from Harlington Upper, Arnold Academy and Parkfields Middle, would be affected.

“CBC confirmed we’re correct in our assumptions. If those pupils attended their nearest school, instead of their current catchment school, it would result in lost revenue of well over £2m to the PST and that would have a devastating impact on those schools.

“The harm would be immense and would bring into question the viability of those schools. It could effectively bankrupt the PST. If we prioritise the switch from three- to two-tier (education) rather than school transport, we’d be doing our children and families much more of a service.”

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CBC’s head of school organisation and capital planning Victor Wan replied: “We’ve been working with the PST on some of the proposals, looking at schools and stakeholders, and it’s active in our consultation.

“We had a very good reaction with 578 comments, many of which came from the Harlington area. There are quite a few responses where residents and stakeholders haven’t agreed to the proposals, and officers have attempted to address those individually in the tables put forward.

“This is guidance from the Department for Education (DfE), which has statutory law behind it, and that’s reviewed by the DfE and distributed to local authorities.

“We realise by opting for the nearest school, it impacts some areas more than others. We’ll be considering exceptions for those areas with the schools and the PST.

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“There was plenty of feedback on siblings. We don’t want to split them up. When the new policy comes into place, we’ll honour the sibling and provide the transport to keep families together.”

The committee agreed four proposals can be considered for approval by the executive, but more detailed work is needed with ward members around exceptions to the nearest school policy.