Parents challenge Haverhill school’s decision to end free transport

The entrance to Samuel Ward Academy in Haverhill
The entrance to Samuel Ward Academy in Haverhill

A parent of one of 84 students told last month that they must start paying for previously free transport to a Haverhill school has criticised both the county council and the school.

Leela Huckstep’s 13-year-old daughter Mia is due to start her third year at Samuel Ward Academy in September.

Mia Huckstep

Mia Huckstep

Until now Mia has been able to travel and from school for free on a fully-subsidised mini bus service provided by Samuel Ward Academy Trust (SWAT).

But, as the Echo revealed last week, parents of Samuel Ward students living in Hundon, Glemsford, Clare and similarly Boyton End, where Mia lives, have been told that as of September they must pay £10 per child per week for the transport, even though the families were all told by letter in March that the same travel arrangements would be in place for the 2017-18 academic year.

In the wake of that letter, Mrs Huckstep asked Suffolk County Council if Mia would qualify for free school transport, as she believed her daughter met the criteria of living more than three miles from their Transport Priority Area (TPA), or nearest, school.

The county council said Mia is not entitled to free school transport as she does not attend her TPA school, which it adjudges to be Stour Valley Community School in Clare – even though the school is full and could not accept 84 more students.

Mrs Huckstep said she and Mia’s dad Christian based their decision on which school Mia should go to using the county council website, which once their home postcode was entered, came up with the result of Samuel Ward being 3.26 miles from their home, compared with Stour Valley which is 3.51m.

“Based on the letter that Samuel Ward originally gave, we were led to believe that as we live outside three miles from the school and that it is my closest school as per the council’s own website, we would receive funding for free transport. However, they have declined our daughter.”

Mrs Huckstep has now formally challenged that decision by Suffolk County Council, and a spokesman for the council said: “Ms Huckstep has exercised her right to appeal this decision, so a final decision will be offered once this process is complete.”

The original decision by SWAT to reverse the offer of free transport led Mrs Huckstep to say: “SWAT had not considered the timescale each family will now endure if deciding to opt for the appeal process. An online application can take two to three weeks to hear back, and then another 20-30 days, taking us into September.

“When meeting Tim Coulson (SWAT CEO) we requested a ‘phasing in period’ as a goodwill gesture for such short notice given to the children. However, this was dismissed. The county council was not contacted by SWAT when they notified the parents by letter two weeks before the end of term, so have been unprepared for dealing with such a high number of applications.

It’s extremely dis-appointing that SWAT have been discussing the funding cut from March and have never contacted the county council in between this time, to work with them in ensuring a smooth change of policy, and even appeal for funding to continue their current service as do other counties directly receive funding towards the usage of their own mini buses.

“SWAT have broken both their verbal and written contract with parents and children, in a letter sent in March this year confirming their free transport would be continued.

“Their sudden change of policy at such short notice is not acceptable. They have broken their agreement and caused much upset causing unpredictable financial struggles for many families.”

Asked why it didn’t contact the council sooner about the decision to end the free transport offer, a SWAT spokesman said: “As with all situations that some parents find less than ideal, we will review our communication strategies.”