Councillors at Oxfordshire County Council have said that the council’s spare seats scheme has not been axed, despite a recent furore, insisting that policies on home-to-school transport have not changed and that work to improve provision is ongoing.
Conservative opposition councillors this week said they had been “bombarded” with complaints from parents angry at the prospect of not being able to access the council’s spare seats scheme.
The county must provide free transport for under-8s travelling more than two miles or children aged eight and older travelling more than three miles to their nearest school or travelling on routes that are deemed not to be safe or suitable.
This is delivered through a free bus pass in most cases, but school-specific services, taxis and mileage allowances are also used.
Spare seats are sold to parents, but with the volume of children eligible for free places changing year on year, spots can never be guaranteed, and tendering processes can also affect the capacity of the overall service.
The matter came to a head when parents received letters on the issue which Councillor Ian Snowdon (Con, Didcot West) this week said had referred to the “withdrawal of the spare seats scheme”, written, “in bold”.
As part of its alternative budget, the Tories highlighted that 235 children were at risk of losing places and proposed that an extra £100,000 should be spent.
The Fair Deal Alliance – the coalition of Liberal Democrat, Labour and Green councillors in charge at County Hall – said the issue had been one of communication and that the spare seats scheme would continue to work as it always had.
Councillor Liz Brighouse OBE (Lab, Churchill & Lye Valley), the county’s lead on children’s services, said: “I realise parents have been very distressed by the letter they got in relation to the spare seats scheme.
“Parents are told when they get a spare seat to note that there is no guarantee that the council will be able to sell you a seat from September, so you should also plan in case your application is unsuccessful.
“These seats are available one academic year at a time, and that is made very clear to parents. Normally, the parents would not have been alerted so early to the fact there are going to be fewer spare seats.
“We don’t know how many spare seats there are going to be. Many of these parents get a spare seat, but until we know what the preferences are of the children coming in at the end of March, we won’t know how many children are going to be eligible for school transport and how many will be on school buses.
“We have amazing problems this year, but that is not to say that some of these children will not get spare seats.
“Our officers are working with those schools and parents, talking to them to find ways that they can alleviate and resolve issues they may have. There is a whole series of conversations going on and work by officers.”
The council’s People Overview & Scrutiny Committee set up a cross-party working group to look at issues with home-to-school transport in February 2022. It is led by Councillor Andy Graham (Lib Dem, Woodstock).
He said that recommendations “will come soon”, taking account of things like children losing entitlement at split school sites “just because they have to walk from one building to another halfway through their secondary school education”, decarbonising the vehicle fleet, routes and the “quite strenuous” appeals process for parents.
“Let’s not play politics on this,” he said. “A lot of work has gone in that will form part of the report. Come to that committee, see and hear what is being debated and what the findings are, then have an opinion.”
Councillor Yvonne Constance OBE (Con, Shrivenham) argued that extra provision should be built in for parents who are willing to pay for it.
“The real issue is that the spare seat scheme could be extended to school transport and help to pay for what has to be provided,” she said.
“If you really get innovative and creative and have the environmental objectives in mind, that is what you would be doing. Put in a bigger bus, get some contributions towards the fixed costs, and you will be better off.
“The importance of spare seats has been underestimated. It needs a rethink, and rural residents demand that you pay attention.”