Utter failure by Essex County Council on secondary school places & school transport

ECC are completely ignoring catchment areas
Essex County Council used to provide free school transport for students going to their catchment school (in education speak, for those in the ‘priority admission area’ ) if it was beyond walking distance. Until Cllr Ray Gooding, Conservative Cabinet member for Education, promoted a cost cutting scheme to reduce this to only providing free transport to the nearest school, even for students not permitted to go to their nearest school.

This is farcical – catchment areas for SWCH and JFA are decided by what parish you are in, not by distance. ECC’s own secondary school booklet for 2017/18 admissions says that in the current school year only those in the catchment area were given places. If you are in one of the many parishes where the nearest school is not the catchment school, but quite reasonably put the catchment school as first choice, you are denied free transport. The information for Helena Romanes and Forest Hall is less clear but I suspect the picture is similar.
ECC have a fantasy that parents have a choice of SIX secondary schools
After years of the ECC Conservative administration failing to match school places with relentless housing growth, our schools are full and parents now have no choice over their children’s secondary school in this part of Essex. Until recently one of the attractions of Uttlesford was having a choice of good schools. This fantasy is in their booklet where they tell parents to use all their six choices.
ECC are now denying free transport for children from low income families
They now refuse to pay if the distance is over 6 miles. And if you have no choice because the nearest school is over 6 miles they don’t care, regardless of being entitled under the low income criteria, you have to pay. And if you appeal against this they fight you at appeal.
ECC are removing all subsidy for those who pay for school transport, following a sham consultation
Those already paying will pay three times what they did last year. And those falling foul of the restrictions above will also pay these increased amounts. ECC claim they ‘consulted’ and no-one complained. However they hid these changes in another bus consultation and did not mention large increases, and then sent the increases letter to parents on the first day of the summer holiday.
Alterations to transport routes were not thought through
There were children deliberately left by the roadside to change buses, children unintentionally left behind because buses were full, and bizarre convoluted routes involving very early starts and late arrivals. After intervention by parents and by R4U some of this has been improved

The people responsible for all of this are ECC Council Leader Cllr Finch, and Cllr Gooding.

They say it is everyone’s fault except their own. In correspondence they blame the academies, they blame parents and in letters to the papers the Conservatives even tried to blame R4U. Cllr Finch has of course been unable to provide me with any example of incorrect information from R4U, and blaming SWCH, which already has over 2000 students, for its decision not to expand further, is not constructive. Regardless of the academies being independent it is ECC who have the statutory duty to ensure that education transport and places are provided. Cambridgeshire has protected students already on courses from big rises, but Cllr Finch has refused to follow their enlightened example.

The ultimate nonsense is that If you apply for the nearest school and put your catchment school second, you will likely be denied your first choice, your child will go to the catchment school, and it seems may be given free transport. This of course is not in the booklet and you have to go to the 28 page Education Transport Policy, which says ‘if a parent is unable to obtain a place at their nearest school having listed it as their first preference on the admission application, home to school transport would then be considered to the second nearest school and so on. If the parent had not listed the second nearest school as their second preference, an entitlement to transport would not exist to any school further away (unless there is an entitlement under the low income criteria).

The deadline for secondary school applications for 2017/18 is 31st October. The number to call to get answers on this is 0345 603 2200. Affected parents may wish to ask what ‘considered’ means.

Essex Education should urgently review their position and go back to their previous policy of recognising catchment areas. And they should follow Cambridgeshire’s example and protect parents who made valid financial decisions and now find their costs tripling

Cllr Gooding is the ward member for Stansted, which includes a number of the parishes affected by these failures. He is standing for re-election in May next year.

4 thoughts on “Utter failure by Essex County Council on secondary school places & school transport

  1. Geoff Powers

    Essex CC are being so intransigent, it seems to me, that nothing short of court action will shift them. Are there not national parents’ organisations that can advise on this situation? Or maybe recourse to the Local Government Association to get their advice on this crazy situation?

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  2. Neil Hargreaves

    One of the matters is with the Local Government Ombudsman. The ECC policy was done because they thought catchments for academies would expand and they could be paying for more distant schools. They didn’t think that their failure to build schools would result in shrinking catchments. They could easily fix the issue with a minor change to the definition of nearest school

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  3. Geoff Powers

    Things have moved on – a little – since I posted above, but I want to thank you, Neil, for your efforts in getting this matter sorted. I cannot believe that so-called senior county councillors can be so pig-headed. It’s nice to know that Mr/Ms Ombudsperson thinks so too!

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  4. Neil Hargreaves

    Essex refusal to follow Dept for Education statutory guidance that nearest school means one with available places has been referred to the DfE and the MP

    The referral to the Ombudsman is by a parent following Essex refusing on appeal. I understand residents in Chesterford and Debden have has successful appeals to the Ombudsman and compensation paid. Yes there does appear to be a stubbornness which causes distress, work and in the end costs for Essex and all of us

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