RURAL schools claim they will lose hundreds of pupils and millions of pounds after councillors voted to end free buses for many children.
Yesterday, after a long day of discussions, Oxfordshire County Council’s cabinet unanimously voted to scrap free transport for schoolchildren if their parents choose not to send them to their nearest school.
The cabinet said it would save £2m a year.
Headteachers and governors from across the county addressed cabinet members in a two-hour discussion in which they raised serious concerns over the plans.
The schools which believe they will be affected the most are Burford School and Bloxham’s Warriner School.
Both believe they will lose hundreds of pupils, and money, under the plans over the coming years.
Burford School headteacher Kathy Haig said: “We will lose up to 500 students over five years in the worst-case scenario and that would be a drop of £2.1m from the school budget. It would affect our priorities over the next five years.
“I have had an unrelenting focus on quality teaching and learning in my school since I started six years ago and this decision will distract me from continuing with this work.”
Brize Norton resident Chloe Bridge, 12, told the Oxford Mail she would have to leave Burford School by the time she starts her GCSEs if the proposals were passed and would have to walk in the dark in the winter to get to Carterton Community College.
“I would have to leave my friends at Burford and walk to Carterton Community College. That would be dangerous.”
These fears were echoed by Warriner School headteacher Annabel Kay, whose catchment is made up of many village primary schools.
Councillor George Reynolds said: “If the students don’t get in the car and go to Warriner because they can’t get free transport, there could be 200 pupils going to different schools. The school could lose two or three villages from school rolls, which is really devastating.”
Burford’s chairman of finance, Richard Martin, said: “Rural schools have developed strategically crucial links based on the present bus system and this will damage that.”
More than 2,500 people responded to the council’s consultation, with a clear majority against the plans.
Free transport is provided to the nearest school in Oxfordshire only
In the case of “split” villages (where pupils are closer to different schools), if 20 per cent of pupils will have to attend a different school under the plan, free transport will be provided to the catchment school for all addresses
The change will be introduced in phases from September 2015
Fares for post-16 travel will be increased by 10 per cent in September, and then by five per cent for the following five years from September 2015
A new job will be created, at a cost of £34,923 a year, for at least two years to administer changes and deal with the expected increase in appeals
Mayor of Burford John White urged the council to conduct an independent review.
But Carterton Community College said it was pleased with the proposals, saying many pupils are “bussed past” the school to go to another secondary and it has historically lost out.
Headteacher Niall McWilliams said: “I really appreciate the difficult decision and that it’s causing lots of debate.
“We should put some of this negative energy into positively improving every single school in Oxfordshire. I truly believe education is the biggest measure of social justice.”
Councillor Lynda Atkins raised concerns about the impact of the proposals on RAF Benson, but was told by council officers the base would be looked at separately.
The changes would mean more children receiving free transport to the already oversubscribed Wallingford School, rather than to Icknield College, in Watlington, which many currently attend.
Earlier in the day, the cross-party education scrutiny committee met and voted in favour of the plans.
Sue Moon, the co-ordinator of campaign group Oxon Schools Bus Action Group, said it was disappointed by the decision but was taking legal advice about a potential judicial review.
Leader of the council Ian Hudspeth warned OSBAG about taking such action.
He said: “Any judicial review will cost the taxpayer money and the group needs to remember a judicial review is about the consultation process and not the outcome.”