Posted on Tuesday 7th December 2021
Councillor Jonathan Price, pictured, says the voluntary scheme is no longer fair or workable after changes to Government guidance.
A suspended scheme, which lets pupils not entitled to free school transport take up spare seats on school buses, is recommended for closure.
Staffordshire County Council said in August that it was minded not to reinstate the non-statutory Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme, because new Government guidance and a lack of suitable commercial vehicles in the region had created an unfair, unworkable system.
The authority delayed a final decision while it asked the public if anyone could put forward a fair and legal solution to continue the scheme, which isn’t compulsory, but a new report to the Council’s Cabinet says that has not happened.
Jonathan Price, Staffordshire County Council’s Cabinet member for Education (and SEND), said:
Earlier this year I said that updated Government legislation had left the Council with a non-statutory service that could not be applied fairly and evenly across the county and placed a burden on taxpayers.
I said then that we would not reinstate the suspended Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme unless a reasonable and workable solution could be found.
Having undertaken a six-week listening exercise, to which less than one per cent of the school population responded, no such solution has been found.”
The report also recommends using information from the public engagement to work with operators to amend existing routes, where viable, to provide options for non-entitled pupils.
In recent years the authority has already structured supported services, or worked with operators to amend commercial routes to provide non-entitled pupils fee-paying travel options, including to Walton High, Stafford; Kinver High; The Friary School, Lichfield; Leek High and Westwood College and Alleyne’s Academy, Stone; plus several others, including to the DeFerrers Academy in Burton.
Each year, Staffordshire County Council transports around 8,000 children entitled to free Home to School transport, using 900 routes to 150 schools.
Another 112,000 Staffordshire children not entitled to free transport make their own way to and from school each day, while prior to the Pandemic, approximately 0.25 per cent of the school population – 300 children – were able to use the Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme.
The decision does not affect those who are entitled to free Home to School transport, and it does not affect those aged 16 and over who are eligible for transport to school or college due to their learning difficulty or disability.
Jonathan Price added:
The County Council is constrained by updated Government guidance on disability access, which is years ahead of the reality on the ground; the commercial operators from whom we commission services simply do not have enough vehicles to comply.
Many rural local authorities are facing the same problem and due to the limited availability of compliant public service vehicles we cannot operate the temporary scheme fairly.
We have a situation where identical children in different parts of the county could travel for free, pay £700 or more, or have no opportunity to use the scheme at all.
It’s costing us money to administer a system which will be unfair and a lottery across the county. Until private operators have vehicle fleets that meet disability legislation there is nothing we can consider.”
NOTES TO EDITORS
- Pupils who use the Temporary Vacant Seat Scheme (TVSS) are not entitled to free Home to School Transport. It is the parents’ responsibility to have their child attend school.
- Updated Government guidance requires vehicles with more than 22 seats to be compliant for disabled access if passengers are charged separately. School transport, where some passengers are entitled to free transport and others are part of the TVSS, falls in this category.
- Operators do not have enough compliant vehicles to meet Government guidance. Staffordshire adjoins 13 other local authorities and they’re all facing the same issue – there’s not enough supply to meet demand and operators will charge more than at present for the compliant vehicles that are available.
- Feedback from transport operators so far shows that only a third of their fleets are compliant; full compliance will take between three to seven years and the cost to them is anticipated to be up to £10 million.
- If the TVSS operates in a situation where some vehicles are compliant, while others are not, one user on the TVSS would pay a minimum fee of several hundred pounds if travelling on a compliant vehicle, while another TVSS user would travel free if on a non-compliant vehicle.
- The TVSS was suspended in June 2020 to create more space on Home to School services for entitled pupils as part of the response to the Pandemic and the need for social distancing.
- Prior to suspension, TVSS had been free to all parents for 10 months while the council considered the implications of the changing Government guidance.
- This does not affect those who are entitled to free Home to School Transport and it does not affect those aged 16 and over who are eligible for transport to school or college due to their learning difficulty or disability.