Cabinet Member Martyn Groucott presented the report and answered the members’ questions with Debra Hill-Howells and Becky Pritchard.
Spare places are sometimes taken up by people choosing to send their children outside their catchment area. Is there a charge for doing so? How is it determined who will take the spare places?
The policy is clear that children are taken to their nearest or catchment school, so parents don’t have the right to choose which school the transport will take them to. But if there are empty spaces on a bus, we can release those to offset some of the cost of transport. Post-16 applications would get priority because there is no statutory requirement to transport them, and we would want to support them continuing their education. For vacant seats above that, there is a concessionary policy to which parents can apply, currently done on a first come-first served basis; in the new policy we suggest dealing with those policies based on who lives furthest from the school.
Is the safety threshold in the learner travel measurement not too high? Could the walking assessment be modified to state that there is an appeal process in which local members can put forward their local knowledge to the chief officer?
There is no change to the distance that a pupil would be expected to walk before qualifying for transport. The decision on whether a route is safe to walk or not is not taken by a member of the school transport team but by an independent qualified road safety officer. We have merely expanded and extended the explanation (e.g. that it is assumed that all primary age children will be accompanied by an adult) – the basic policy remains unchanged.
Under resource implications, the cost for 22/23 is c.£5.4m. Has this been stress-tested against the increased cost of living and fuel etc., and if so, how?
We go out to tender for all contracts, so they are awarded after a blind bidding process. We also ask our internal team to submit a tender cost so that we can compare internal provision with external. We aren’t currently receiving any tenders for some contracts, so our internal team has no choice but to take on the contract. Latterly, this has included having to acquire new vehicles to undertake them, increasing the cost of the provision to the authority. We have to take on annual uplifts based on the national picture, working with Torfaen and Newport colleagues to ensure that when we do so it doesn’t create a competition market between us and neighbouring authorities. The majority of the cost is borne by the authority, not affecting service users unless they are post-16 or concessionary. The cost for those is £440 p/a, subsidised significantly by the authority: the cost of a non-ALN place is £1900 per seat per pupil. Parents can pay in instalments over the academic year. £440 is likely to be much cheaper than if they tried to make their own arrangements for those individuals.
Is there an opportunity to review those contracts with operators e.g. in light of fuel cost rises?
We uplifted all contracts by 9.7% this April to reflect the cost of living, a rate agreed nationally. An operator can return the contract.
Across the county different primary and secondary schools have different catchment areas. Will transport still be provided for different locations from the same area? What are the cost implications?
This has come about from the change in catchment to Caerleon Comprehensive from some of the primary schools in the Usk/Llangybi area. Because Caerleon was previously the nearest available school, the average journey was 3 miles. But they now go to Monmouth Comprehensive, with an average journey is now 18 miles, and therefore a huge increase in cost. We have agreed to undertake a limited review of catchment areas. There are difficulties in some areas, such as the aforementioned, which the review will therefore include. As long as the requirements for distance are met, pupils will have a statutory entitlement to transport.
For children looked after by the authority, placements sometimes break down and they might be with a different family. Is there anything in the policy to consider them, and their continuity of schooling?
The right to appeal underpins the whole policy, to take into account special circumstances. Because they relate to individual cases, it would be very difficult to fold all possible outcomes into one policy. We therefore emphasise that right to appeal so that special circumstances can be taken into account.
Relating to the A40/42, many residents raise safety issues about crossing the road to get on the bus. Are safe routes assessed for secondary school pupils?
The route assessment takes into account the traveller’s age, as it is assumed in the policy that primary school age children will be accompanied. We are not aware of this particular issue – we can ask the Road Safety Officer to look at it, but we can’t ever completely eliminate risk. They will look at whether there is sufficient visibility etc., a safe route to cross doesn’t necessarily mean a designated crossing point.
None of the bus stops except one on the A40/42 has a drop kerb for wheelchair access.
For a specific pupil with specific needs, we would evaluate the provision, but all the transport that we provide is accessible anyway.
The Zebra crossing in Goytre needs to be finished, as part of the safe walking route to the primary school.
Safe routes are the responsibility of MonLife – email the cabinet member and it will be raised with the team.
Is notification of whether a post-16 learner has been awarded a seat to an out-of-county school prior to term commencement a change to the policy?
Yes, this is a proposed change because we recognise the difficulty of pupils accessing Welsh medium or faith-based education, as we don’t offer those in county, having listened to the consultation feedback. From next year they will be prioritised when we consider post-16 applications.
The Road Safety Officer assessing routes constitutes a change in policy. It would be useful if there was an appeal mechanism to chief officers so that members’ views could be taken into account, as otherwise the member is powerless if local knowledge were to contradict the RSO. I recommend that discretionary hazardous routes be added to the policy, so that a member could ask the senior officer for review of a decision.
Assessment of the route is handled by a trained officer separate from the school transport team, operating from clear guidelines, so the same rules are applied objectively to every application. That is fair because the assessment isn’t made by the officer who makes the final decision. Relating to the right of appeal against a judgement that a route is safe to walk along, currently, there is a clear policy for making an objection. Our Transport Officer makes the initial judgement as to whether to accept a safe walking route recommendation; if parents were to appeal, it would go to the Head of Transport for further consideration. The views of the local member would be taken into account, as they have been in previous instances this year. The two-stage process is therefore fair and objective, and in no need of further refinement.
It would still be helpful if the policy itself allowed the local member to ask the Chief Officer to review a discretionary decision.
We would not want to interfere with a policy such that the initial RSO analysis could be in any way compromised. It is right that it is independent. What we could do is add a few words where it says that ‘parents have the right’, to the effect of ‘in conjunction with a local member’ – the Cabinet Member will look at that immediately after today’s meeting.
Is there any means via our legal department to strengthen contracts with operators? If a contractor drops out when it becomes ‘too expensive’ surely it’s not really a contract?
We could raise that with Matt Phillips, the Chief legal officer.
For Welsh-medium pupils there is no in-county choice in their secondary provision, meaning long journeys for many, and this will also be the case once children attending the new primary school in Monmouth need to get to Welsh-medium secondary – we need to look at that in the future.
The policy concerning provision for Welsh-medium transport has been strengthened this year: “we will provide transport to the nearest Welsh-medium or faith school.” But we take the point that there is more than one phase to education and secondary Welsh-medium phase isn’t currently provided by Monmouthshire. That is an argument for a different committee, however, and as an authority we are committed to the expansion of Welsh-medium education.
If a child is moved overnight to a foster family, how are we going to support them as corporate parents to not have disruption in their education? Is the appeals process good enough in that instance?
If a young person were being relocated, we would automatically work with our social service colleagues to ensure that transport was provided, probably on a discretionary basis, as they wouldn’t meet the statutory requirements. We would certainly look to ensure that a child wasn’t disadvantaged as a result of being moved.
Some families are now paying £400 for transport due to the catchment area changing while their children were in primary school – can consideration be given to them? They currently feel penalised by the council. Can a case-by-case ruling be made?
We are aware of these families through the councillor’s intervention, so will look into the matter. The catchment change in question (for Caerleon school) was made by Newport City Council unilaterally – MCC wasn’t consulted. Unfortunately, we can’t take into account a child’s wish to stay with their friends, but we have already pledged to undertake a limited review of catchment areas during the current academic year.
The policy is required to be reviewed annually and it has been through a public consultation process. The feedback has been considered in amending the policy. The Scrutiny Committee has been asked to endorse the policy for 2023-2024. We’ve been able to discuss this in detail this morning with helpful contributions from the cabinet member and officers. Does the committee feel satisfied with the responses to their questions and is it the committee’s conclusion to endorse this policy, subject to any amendments we have suggested that the Cabinet Member has agreed to take on board? Any outstanding responses to questions will be provided by the Cabinet Member after the meeting. If the committee is content, we will move forward with our agenda with thanks to Councillor Groucutt, Deborah Hill-Howells and Becky Pritchard for attending today.
Councillor Brown wished to note the Cabinet Member’s agreement to alter the wording concerning Member inclusion in appeals.