Brake on scrapping of free school buses in Sheffield

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News: Sheffield Telegraph online 24-hours a day.

CONTROVERSIAL proposals to scrap free bus travel for pupils attending Catholic schools in Sheffield are to be reconsidered.

The council is ordering a fresh round of consultation before deciding whether to press ahead with stopping the discretionary passes for students of Notre Dame and All Saints Secondaries.

Opposition Liberal Democrats said the authority had been forced to backtrack on a decision last December following the threat of costly legal action.

Parents had warned they could have to pay up to £350 a year if their children no longer had the passes, and the council’s strategy also resulted in widespread opposition from staff and the local Catholic community. It was criticised as discriminatory, hasty and badly-organised.

The Labour council is looking to save £250,000 a year to help meet a £50m budget gap it blames on ‘draconian’ Government cuts.

Jayne Ludlam, executive director of the children, young people and families, said: “In light of issues raised in a legal challenge regarding the decision to stop funding discretionary denominational transport, and having fully reflected upon the consultation process and the potential impact on some children already in receipt of passes, it has been decided to consult further on the proposal.

“On balance it is better to allow a period of time for further consultation to consider the implications of the representations. This also represents an opportunity to manage financial, legal and reputational risks.”

As part of the consultation process, the authority will review the impact on pupils at All Saints in Granville Road and Notre Dame in Fulwood Road.

Lib Dem education spokesman Coun Colin Ross welcomed the rethink, but said: “It’s a shame that they only agreed to act when threatened with legal action. It’s clear that the full consequences of this policy have not been properly considered both on pupils and schools across the city.

“The idea that pupils could be forced to move school halfway through their GCSEs seems deeply unfair. Labour leaders were determined to simply rush through the process with complete disregard for the local education and Catholic community.”

Labour cabinet member Coun Jackie Drayton said the changes were being considered “with a heavy heart”, but there was no choice given the scale of Government cuts.

“We have re-opened consultation on discretionary free school transport to give families the opportunity to have their say before the final decision is taken and also to look at how we can support those families who are just above the free school meals criteria and who have two or more children who are in their exam years.

“Many other local authorities have already withdrawn this provision, after the Government have targeted spending cuts at northern towns and cities with the highest levels of deprivation. Children who are entitled to free travel through statuary criteria will continue to receive it, this includes children in receipt of free school meals or whose parents are in receipt of their maximum level of Working Tax Credit.

“This decision is not we want to make but due to budget cuts we are left with little choice but to cut discretionary spending.”