The school run this September will be lighter on parents’ pockets in Spalding, Bourne and across Lincolnshire than it might have been.
A decision by Lincolnshire County Council (LCC), made public on Thursday, to keep transport to and from selective schools across the county free for students was a relief to parents who feared that the council’s need to save £119 million over the next four years would be taken out on them.
For the full account of how free grammar school transport for Lincolnshire, a service which the county council is not obliged to provide by law, the “clock” needs to go back 22 months when a letter appeared in one of our sister newspapers, the Stamford Mercury.
John Hicks of Stamford wrote in September 2014: “Significant numbers of Stamford children make the considerable bus journey (to Bourne Grammar School) each morning and evening.
“This is done at their own expense, even though LCC has a legal duty under education legislation to provide transport to an appropriate school.
“Some Stamford families have even moved to Bourne (which) cannot be an ideal scenario for the fifth biggest centre of population in Lincolnshire (where), in all but one of the top ten populated towns, there is a state-maintained grammar school provided.”
Four months later, Mr Hicks’ argument was echoed by parents from Creeton, Castle Bytham and Little Bytham, three villages between Bourne and Grantham, who had opted to send their children to the selective Bourne Grammar School and non-selective Bourne Academy.
At the time, Jane King of Creeton said: “We want the council to bring the policy in line so it’s fair.
“But they won’t meet with us (and, instead), the council has written to us to say that we are not eligible.”
The parents believed their children should be entitled to free transport to both their nearest comprehensive and grammar school, whereas the council’s policy is to provide free transport to the nearest grammar school for students living within one 11 “designated transport areas” (DTAs).
Eventually, pressure from parents, a clutch of parish councils and Nick Boles, MP for Grantham and Stamford, led to a decision by Coun Patricia Bradwell, the district council’s executive member for children’s services, in April 2015 to ask for a review of free grammar school transport across Lincolnshire.
In supporting the parent’s call for the review, Mr Boles said: “Without making any commitment, (the review) rightly indicates that the council accepts there are some anomalies that need to be worked out.
“My position is that while I welcome the decision to review the broader policy, the one thing the council should look at is whether there is a smaller tweak that would deal specifically with this issue - something that doesn’t necessarily have to wait for a full review of the policy.”
The review by a group of nine county councillors, including Couns Chris Brewis and William Webb of Sutton Elloe and Holbeach Rural respectively, was led by Nettleham and Saxilby ward member Coun Jackie Brockway.
“I did it on the basis that everybody must be heard, not where people sat in silence,” Coun Brockway said.
“The group did a lot of preparatory work in learning and understanding the county’s (grammar school) transport policy, although some of the councillors were concerned in the sense that it was their job to fight for the grammar schools in their area.
“But I felt that everybody was very honourable and very serious in trying to find the right way forward, holding detailed discussions and conversations with residents and council officers.”
The review group came up with two options, after six months of work between September 2015 and 2016, which were contained in a 42-page report published in March 2016.
Option one was “to leave the grammar school transport policy as it is, but review it in two years”, the report said.
Meanwhile, option two was “to charge pupils (starting in September 2016) living in grammar school DTAs for transport to a grammar school where it is not the nearest suitable school”.
Last Thursday, Lincolnshire’s parents discovered that Coun Patrcia Bradwell had chosen option one.
But parents celebrating Lincolnshire County Council’s decision to leave its grammar school transport policy alone should note that it is subject to review in 2018.
South Holland and the Deepings MP John Hayes said: “It’s really important that people have access to school transport given the widely dispersed catchment area of (grammar schools), with people travelling in from towns and villages across South Holland and further afield.
“School transport is vital and I am delighted that those of us who made that case have been listened to and that people have nothing to worry about in terms of getting to and from school for the next two years.”
Holbeach district councillor Paul Foyster said: “Given the swingeing cuts to local authority funding by the present Government, this is the best we could have hoped for right now and I am pleased with the decision.
“Social mobility and the supply of well-educated people we so clearly need is ruled by educational standards and parental choice.
“Therefore, access to the most appropriate education for our children should not be controlled by relatively minor amounts of money.”
But Bourne Castle county councillor Helen Powell said: “I think this decision is wrong and that all children across the whole of Lincolnshire deserve no less than to be treated fairly and given the same opportunities.
“That’s what a democracy is all about.”