An online meeting took place last night, convened by Chester’s MP, which brought together a number of interested parties to discuss the vexed question of school transport for high school pupils living in Saughall. The conversation also extended to include Mollington too. Many parents were present, together with representatives from Stagecoach, members of the ruling Cabinet administration at the Council, the key high schools (Upton and Bishops) and also Council officials. Useful factual information was shared but what was most important in my mind was the need to agree some positive next steps to try and resolve the issues being faced. I do not share the view expressed that the Council does not have money available to try and resolve these challenges but that is a party political point and I am keen to avoid doing that! Before commenting further, I would put on record again my huge thanks to the parents (and their children) who have been resilient and tenacious in their campaigning on this – I am very conscious of how exhausting it has been for many and deeply frustrating.
This ‘way forward’ was agreed:
- Cabinet members (those with executive decision making power) will look to formulate an ‘affordable supported service’ solution
- A proposal for this will hopefully emerge ‘this term’ (my comment - I expect this timetable to be kept to and pressed for it to be the case several times in the meeting)
- They will look at ‘other’ pots of funding, such as the ‘Climate Emergency Fund’ for this, acknowledging the detrimental environmental impact of the current situation
- They will pursue a kind offer from the schools present to assist with the administration of any such scheme
- An update will be provided within the next two weeks (most likely via the MPs office).
For those who might be interested, I was able to offer some early remarks and have repeated them below. This issue is far from over and I will continue to do all I can to assist in bringing about a final resolution to this major problem for so many in the Saughall and Mollington Ward.
“Chris, thanks for convening this meeting which is very timely and I think it is fair to say that parents (and students) will be grateful that it is taking place.
Can I also thank those colleagues from various organisations who have joined the meeting to give their perspective and input and for the way many of them have responded extensively on email in recent months.
And especially I’d thank the parents and their children, of course, for their patience around what is a very challenging situation and one which causes considerable anxiety and has done for a number of years now.
Others will document the problems that are faced, perhaps in more specific detail based on their own experiences, but in a nutshell:
- Saughall parents have a long-standing practice of largely looking to send their children to either Upton or Bishops in Chester – the area is long standing as a feeder for these schools
- Decisions have in the past been made on the grounds of ease of transport to these schools although parents do understand that there is ultimately a responsibility on them to ensure their children get there – issues arise when the Council changes the goal posts – which is what it has done
- The demise of the direct bus service to local high schools has caused real challenges for transport to them ever since
- This issue became acute before Covid-19 but action was taken to introduce some additional bus capacity which eased pressures and worked well
- Additional Covid-19 funding also helped with the provision of direct services – again, this worked very well – since it ended, the challenges from previous times have resurfaced again
- The journey now isn’t straightforward – multiple buses / changes at the central interchange / the need to walk / missing connections – it’s all well-known and extensively documented
- There’s been an unfortunate lack of knowledge on the part of drivers at times, poor advice given, unpleasantness from other people ‘competing for space’, students refused access to buses – sometimes it seems like drivers have been making things up as they go along rather than following guidance given from operators
- There appears to be a disconnect in Council policy documents around school admissions and transport – the text is ambiguous and unclear (for example, Saughall is not cited as a having feeder status to Blacon) – officers dealing with these matters have said as such
- On the subject of Blacon, I would comment there is no reluctance to send children there from Saughall – but it has been nigh on impossible to secure places in recent years
- I should also say there’s no expectation here that parents want a free service – that has never been asked for – people are willing to pay for a service but it should be proportionate and sensible
- There’s concern also about the long-term viability of the primary school in Saughall – access to good local high schools and ease of transport to them is a major factor in choosing to live in the village (and other villages) – the longer this is a problem, the more likely it is that there will be a knock on effect on primary school places and provision
- Communications have been poor from several angles – whatever the outcome tonight, this needs to change – this is a real problem
I’d also say there are major problems in Mollington village too (although I’m not sure who might be on the call from there). Public transport provision there is even worse and it is even more rural.
This is a live issue for parents and students now on several levels. Those who are affected by the current situation and those who are actively making decisions about where their children might wish to attend in the next academic year. Transport looms large as a consideration for them. If they ask for advice, what should we say? That’s a key question here I’d say to address tonight.
Might I respectfully say from the outset – because what we will need is a way forward rather than a list of reasons why things aren’t possible, that from a Council perspective, we don’t really need to hear:
- That the Council has no money for X,Y,Z
- That the Council can’t really influence or affect matters because of the governance status of a school
- That the Council has met all its statutory obligations (some might dispute that) – there’s a much bigger picture here, not least around our responsibilities to treat parents with respect and to provide a proper customer service experience for those who have asked questions and indeed the welfare of those who are most affected, i.e. the students.
That said, it is essential that we are all aware of the key issues and when it comes to that later in the agenda, I know a number of parents will wish to elaborate in simple but clear terms what those issues are. It is in the context of those that we can hopefully move forward. My summary above is pretty rudimentary.
Finally, we are about ten days away from the clocks changing. For me this brings home quite clearly the acute challenge that is faced – dark nights and dark mornings. My overarching concern here is safety – the safety of students getting to school in a timely and safe way, addressing the very real anxiety that parents also face about whether their children are safe. It’s a big issue.
So, I look forward to these discussions but most importantly for a practical and realistic way forward. It is progress that we need to see which is crucial tonight. Thank you.”