A highly charged meeting with parents ended with one council official in tears and another seemingly doing a U turn on the withdrawal of a school bus scheme.

Oxfordshire County Council is withdrawing its Spare Seats Scheme on eight routes, affecting more than 200 children, from September.

It allows parents with children not eligible for free home-to-school transport to pay to use spare seats on school buses.

Clara Dawe, a member of the Save Our Buses campaign group, said although the meeting on Monday between council officers and parents from the Warriner School in Bloxham was ‘civil’ Martin Goff, Head of Learner Access at the county council “made a massive U-turn".

READ ALSO: A34 motorist who made hand gesture at police punished

She said: " He said 'I will include the SSS in the [school bus service contracts] tender starting on June 1 and will provide indicative costs to parents before that'. 

"Mr Goff said inclusion of the Spare Seats Scheme in the bus tender was at 'my discretion' and under a lot of pressure, he said he would include the SSS in the tender.

"It was crystal clear and witnessed by two councillors and the chair of Bloxham parish council."

In the 2022-23 academic year, parents could pay £244 per term for a seat where available, and if the journey was three miles (4.8km) or more.

The county council is withdrawing the scheme because it says it will no longer be cost neutral from September.

Mrs Dawe said: “They came into the meeting saying it’s not our statutory duty, which we know, and that is all they have to say. We put them under intense scrutiny as to who made the decision. And they were the two people in the room.

“We asked them who made the decision, who can reverse it, will you exercise your discretion?

“Under the parents’ scrutiny they buckled. Anita Syphas, the supported transport officer, was in tears with Martin holding her hand.

"It was a civil meeting but they were giving us ridiculous answers. We were saying, can you answer the question we have asked. They weren’t prepared in any way. No one was even taking notes.

“They had massively underestimated the calibre of parents that came to the meeting."

Cherwell councillor Kieron Mallon was also at the meeting and asked if he thought the officer has agreed to a U-turn said: "That was my and those who attended understanding."

Bicester Advertiser:

Mrs Dawe said: “OCC has said their rationale that if they carry on the Spare Seats Scheme the costs will rise. Their argument is that parents simply won’t pay that.

“We work as hospital staff, nurses, teachers, key workers, and some of those parents actually said we will have to give up work, or change jobs if they have to drive their children to school.

"Before the meeting, OCC was claiming no parents would pay extra for their children's bus seats if they went up by what OCC estimated could be as much as 32 per cent.

"Once it was pointed out that for some parents, an increase of that order would mean an extra £75 per three month school period which they would happily pay rather than give up their jobs as key workers just to drive their children to school, it became clear that parents will pay the increase and want that option. 

“If it’s a question of paying £75 a term or losing or changing your job of course you will pay it. Parish councils are even offering top-ups for those who can’t afford it so no child will not be able to afford the excess.

READ ALSO: Mercedes truck driver gets two-year ban after M40 services crash

“The financial argument does not make sense at all. Nor does the environmental one. None of us wants to be driving and putting pollution into the air.

”My children are at a primary school that is a village school that is a feeder school for Wheatley Park and Oxford Academy is full. It is a valid choice."

Oxfordshire County Council said the reason it said that indicative costs would be shared with parents – who have a child who is not entitled to free school transport – is to give them, and the school, an indication of the costs involved should they decide to fund their own transport provision through the same bus service provider.

The council said it had not changed its position.

"Oxfordshire County Council will continue to provide the home to school transport service for all eligible pupils. 

"We are reducing the number of spare seats in the scheme on certain contracts that need to be renewed, and where we currently have high levels of students travelling who are not entitled to free home to school transport.

"The new contracts make it unaffordable for us to continue to provide the same number of spare seats.

"We are very mindful when making these difficult decisions of the impact on the parents who will have to make alternative arrangements; and on the environment and reducing carbon.

"But this has to be balanced against the council’s budget."


Read more from this author

This story was written by Miranda Norris, she joined the team in 2021 and covers news across Oxfordshire as well as news from Witney.

Get in touch with her by emailing: Miranda.Norris@newsquest.co.uk. Or find her on Twitter: @Mirandajnorris

Profile: Miranda Norris Journalists news from the Oxford Mail