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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Two Tier School with Two Tier Transport

This autumn my daughter started at a new school that is actually closer to my home than the catchment school for our village. Since most of the children from her middle school were also to move to that school I decided to apply for a free bus pass.

On 05/08/11 I received a letter from Passenger Transport informing me I was not entitled to a free bus pass for my daughter’s journey to school.  Strangely, the reason given for this was that the route is registered as a local bus service. I was sure the school bus was only for school children, and that the public were not allowed on it. Indeed I confirmed with the operator that the bus is not available for public use, nor are there any public buses stopping at the school during the hours of 9am or 4pm. About this time I also discovered that people living in the village, just 500m from my house had actually received free bus passes for exactly the same journey that my daughter needed to make.

I therefore decided to contact the council for an explanation, and this is where my pain really started. I’ve listed the sequence of events at the end of this blog entry, but in summary for three months it was impossible to speak to anyone in the back office to either:

a)      Explain why I was denied free bus transport based on Route TN162 being registered as a local bus service.
b)      To confirm free bus transport would be provided to me as it has for others in the village.

The front call desk became a barrier and I was unable to speak directly with the person making the decision, so was unable to get an answer, a form of what is known as the “authority limits tactic”. No one in the back office rang me as the front desk told me they would. In fact I ended up having my entire week’s holiday wasted by waiting in for them to call after they said they would.

I firmly believe I would never have heard anything back had it not been for two tier schools review. At one of the school consultations I was able to speak to a senior member of the council, and what a difference that made, indeed the person in charge of school buses rang me on the day I was told they would.

Apparently the school bus does count as public transport as available spaces are sold to pupils who aren’t entitled to free transport, they deem this “discretionary transport”, for which they charge £180 a term, much more than the local bus service. Unfortunately you can’t use the cheaper local bus service, as whether purposely or not, it doesn’t run at the times of the school bus.

The council did apologise, both for the huge delay in responding, but also because they gave me the wrong reply. I should have been told I didn’t qualify for a free bus pass due to yet another upper school being closer than either the catchment or the actual school my daughter attends. Essentially I was playing the post code lottery and was just a few metres over the boundary. The majority of children from my village don’t move to the catchment upper school, but instead go to my daughter’s school, so in this instance the children that pay for transport clearly subsidise the cost of transport of the children that the council is bound to support.

Interestingly, when I pushed them for the map of the route they were using to determine the distance to school, they said it was a significant amount of effort to pull that together as it exists on very old maps rather than on a computer. This seems bizarre in this day and age with mapping software, and makes you wonder how accurate the boundary is. Still, given what they have put me through I’m certainly going to request this.

Most worryingly is that my above first-hand experience of the contempt that Suffolk County Council hold for their constituents by not bothering to reply as they said they would, now makes me deeply concerned about their ability to successful deliver the change to two tier schools as part of the Thurston Partnership.

Ironically, unless the council change the catchment area for the new two tier Thurston school, I would end up paying for my daughter to attend the Thurston campus, but get free transport to the Beyton campus. I would therefore urge anyone eligible to attend Thurston Community College, but out of its catchment area, to write to the council and ask them to change the catchment area to include their village. The council have confirmed to me they will consider this, otherwise we will have a two tier school with two tier transport.

Here is the sequence of events:

16/08/11: I telephoned the free home to school transport department who informed me we would be contacted back within 2 working days.

19/08/11 (3 days): I was not contacted; so I phoned back and was then told it could be up to a week before I got a reply.

30/08/11 (11 days): I was yet again not contacted; I was told the turnaround time for a call back was now 10 working days, which had passed. The person I spoke to tried to put me through to the back office, but they did not answer. I called again later that day, but a different person refused to try and put me through. They did however make my case an ‘urgent’.

31/08/11 (12 days): Since the case was now classified as urgent I telephoned the following day, but yet again no progress had been made with my case.

02/09/11 (14 days): A producer from BBC Radio Suffolk contacted me after reading on Twitter about my frustration at not getting a reply of any sort. I was interviewed about the situation on the radio, just 5 days before my daughter was due to start her new school. Nobody from the Council was prepared to appear on the show, and a statement was given which just a repeat of what is on the council website, rather than providing an answer to my appeal.

12/09/11 (24 days): After the Council had still failed to contact me, I had to pay £180 for one term’s bus travel whilst others nearby were receiving it free. My wife telephoned on 12/09/11 to check on progress. This time the person she spoke to changed the reason for refusal. It was now due to Stowmarket High being my daughter’s closest school rather than Thurston Community College, and therefore free transport would not be provided. Clearly my appeal against the original denial for free transport was still not answered. My wife therefore insisted I get to speak with someone in the department so that I can understand these points.

20/09/11 (32 days):  Yet again nobody had contacted us. My wife therefore emailed customer services at Suffolk County Council to complain about the complete lack of response we have had from this department and to request a name of someone in charge to write to.

22/09/11 (34 days): An email was received back saying this information had been added to my file, but no contact name was provided. Rather pointless.

03/10/2011 (46 days): After further contact by email my wife was finally provided with a name and told someone would contact her.

14/11/2011 (88 days): It had now been 12 weeks since my first contact with Suffolk CC, and still no one had contacted me. I wrote a letter to the person whose name my wife was provided with and sent it via registered post.

15/11/2011 (89 days): My wife and I spoke to Linda Howe at the Thurston school consultation and told her of our experience. She said she would make sure we were contacted on 17/11. We were contacted and I’m very grateful to Linda for doing this as we finally got to speak to someone, even if we didn't get the outcome we wanted.

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