Cutting transport costs for Welsh medium pupils debated
Richard Evans – Local Democracy Reporter
Potential cuts to the bill for taking children to and from school in Conwy have sparked concerns about the impact on Welsh-medium education.
Councillors on the county’s education scrutiny committee spoke about the importance of protecting the Welsh language, as well as protecting pupils with special needs, separated parents, and those attending religious schools.
Conwy Council is set to launch a consultation that will garner opinion on which school pupils should receive discretionary costs of home-to-school transport.
The questionnaire is designed to find out which children’s discretionary needs should be prioritised.
While the cost of school transport is statutorily publicly funded for some, local authorities can decide whether to pay for other children’s journeys to and from school.
Once the results of the public consultation are in, the cabinet must decide what to do by September 2024 and implement the changes by September 2025.
The authority is facing a £24.5m black hole next year and is set to overspend by several million pounds in the current financial year.
Some councillors raised fears the provision of home-to-school transport for Welsh-speaking children could be cut if, for example, an English school was nearer to their home, meaning the cost of extra travel was no longer statutorily provided.
Cllr Gareth Jones, though, seemed to doubt whether Conwy would go through with such cuts.
“We need to be careful. If people say they don’t want to pay for Welsh transport, are we really going to stop it?” he said.
“So if we are just asking the question and not going to do anything with it (the information from the public consultation), what is the point of asking the question?”
Council officers informed Cllr Jones it was a matter of gathering information and that there would be an equality impact assessment before any decisions were made.
Cllr Gwennol Ellis added: “I have great concerns.
“People looking at this who have no Welsh background will more than likely vote to say ‘no, I don’t think we should be paying for transport to medium Welsh schools’.
“That is what I would do if I didn’t have any understanding.
“The impact of this on Ysgol Dyffryn Conwy and Ysgol y Creuddyn (two Welsh-medium schools)…I don’t know.”
She then said it was a very dangerous route.
But Cllr Jo Nuttall said some parents should pay for transport. “We know about the state we are in (financially).
“I think it is time discretionary services are paid for.
“If children are on free school meals, journeys should remain free, but I do think now there is room to start charging for those who can afford it.”
Cllr Austin Roberts then explained a situation in which parents had separated and a child had been caught between travelling to a school and two different home addresses.
Cllr Roberts reminded councillors: “We are here to serve our children, and we are here to ensure that they get the best care and education.”
Conwy’s head of education Lowri Brown then reminded councillors that Welsh language transport to school had to be consulted on as there were other important considerations such as faith and pupils with additional learning needs.
Cabinet member for education Cllr Julie Fallon said she believed the questionnaire would help protect the Welsh language but said Conwy had to be transparent.
She added: “We pride ourselves on our transparency here, and I think picking and choosing and excluding certain points would be argued was not open and transparent.
“I am incredibly proud of the Welsh language.”
Cllr Frank Bradfield proposed councillors backed the report.
This was seconded by councillor Kay Redhead, and the vote was unanimously in favour. The consultation will go live in February 2024.
The proposed cutbacks follow the authority upping council tax by 9.9%, the highest rise in Wales, slashing service budgets by 10% – with even schools having to make 5% cuts – and predicting more cuts to come next year.
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