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School transport: when a bus subsidy is cut parental choice comes with a hefty price tag

The consequences of the sudden decision by Wiltshire Council not to subsidise the early morning Stagecoach 80 bus service from Swindon to St John's Academy caused a bit of a flurry at the Council and made some parents very cross. 

 

As marlborough.news reported in July, the Go South Coast bus company came to the rescue with a special school-days only service - the 680 under their Salisbury Reds flag.  They have guaranteed this service for the current school year. 


The offer of the new service came from Go South Coast (GSC) to the school, who were relieved and grateful - and acknowledged the company was taking a commercial risk.  At Wiltshire Council there was surprise and some irritation: "So after all that GSC are going to provide something...I wish they could have said that before."  It is not clear whether GSC had been asked to step in by the Council.

The key point in the debate over this cut in bus services was that about 20 of the 44 students regularly using the 80 service to St John's came from over the county border in the Borough of Swindon.  They live in the catchment area of The Ridgeway School in Wroughton.

Marlborough.news' two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to Wiltshire Council have revealed some of the background. 

One FOI request tried to find out whether Wiltshire Council's passenger transport had asked their colleagues in the education department, whether they should go ahead with this cut in service which effectively stranded students living in Chiseldon. 

No written communications among Council staff about this were found.  So, unless there was a 'phone call or two, the education managers were left in the dark.

The other FOI request revealed some interesting facts about the new service - especially its cost to parents.  The child return fare on the Stagecoach 80 service had been £3.90.  To make the new 680 service viable, the return fare was set at £5.50 with termly scholars' passes costing £965.00 per annum.

The early morning 80 service was cancelled because Stagecoach asked Wiltshire Council for a £10,000 subsidy and were turned down.  There is no sign of a negotiation with Stagecoach.

This increased subsidy was to make up for a 'decline' in passengers on the early morning service - though this 'decline' seems not to have been tested by the Council and is contrary to evidence from the passenger survey conducted by one of the Chiseldon students.

It is interesting that all the parties involved were quite clear from the outset that these students from north of the border were 'non-entitled' or 'out of county' school students. Wiltshire Council was none too concerned with their transport arrangements to St John's.  Swindon Borough Council shrugged as well - as they run transport to the Ridgway School.

Councillor Bridget Wayman (whose Cabinet responsibilities include transport) wrote:  "...it was the parents’ decision to send them there [St John's] knowing they had to pay for transport. The fact that a commercial operator has withdrawn the service which they were happy with is a risk they had to take."

And Phil Groocock , Wiltshire Council's Bus Network Manager, wrote: "It was parental choice for their children to attend St John's, and therefore their responsibility to get them there."

What might happen after July 2020?  Phil Groocock was not very optimistic and a bit cynical about Go South Coast's motivation: "It's all because otherwise they will have nothing for a Pewsey based double decker to do before 0830 and are desperate to find a use for it!  However it will only take a sniff of a contract elsewhere and they will take it off!"

A bus service is still in the timetable to get the students north across the county border and home after school. Jason Salter (of Wiltshire Council Passenger Transport Unit) wrote:  "As far as I am concerned an alternative, return journey only, remains in place for students wanting to get back to Swindon from Marlborough...I guess however, if you can't get into Marlborough in the first place this may well not be much help."

Wiltshire Council - like other councils - makes much of its good figures for the number of parents getting their first choice of school.  Do their figures include parents from outside the county?  Despite losing control of academies, Wiltshire Council still takes pride in the exam results of the county's schools.  Do their figures include those students from outside Wiltshire?

FOOTNOTE: Another facet of this little bus crisis was that the cancelled 80 service impacted quite severely on a group of Swindon people - and involved the MP for South Swindon, Robert Buckland.  It had regularly carried staff from Swindon to Chiseldon's care homes. 

A special bus had to be arranged to get them to their work.  Might it have been possible to use a little cross border diplomacy and cost sharing?

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