Pupils as young as 11 will face an isolated and unlit walk to school despite Oxfordshire County Council admitting that unaccompanied children would not ‘feel safe at times' on the designated route.

Despite an appeal by parents, the council has upheld its decision to cuts its free bus service between Childrey and King Alfred’s Academy in Wantage from the start of the next academic year in September.

It means that children will be faced with a choice.

Either pay for the bus, or walk an almost three-mile route to school that has been designated by the council.

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When the decision was first announced in March, it faced angry backlash from parents and councillors who described the route as a ‘pothole ridden dirt track’.

Oxford Mail: A view of the bridleway from Childrey to King Alfred's in the winter

An appeal from a group of parents forced the council to reinspect the bridleway on June 12.

The independent appeal panel, who carried out the inspection, found officers had ‘correctly applied’ the council policy and upheld the original decision.

Yet, the panel also noted safety issues with the route.

In an email sent to a parent, the clerk to the panel, Richard Hodby, said: “The panel noted that the route was isolated and would be largely unlit after dark and agreed it was certainly not one on which an unaccompanied child would feel safe at times.”

But Mr Hodby added: ‘Sadly in itself this is not a ground for setting aside the decision.”

He said the policy on which the decision was made - Oxfordshire County Council’s Home to School Travel and Transport Policy 2022/23 – had a ‘very narrow’ definition of safety, which was only concerned with the interaction between pedestrians and vehicles.

He claimed this type of interaction was ‘minimal’. The panel found that traffic to the east of Cornhill Lane moved ‘very slowly’, there was ‘good visibility’ at the crossing with Silver Lane, and there were ‘adequate’ verges throughout for pedestrians to avoid vehicles.

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Parents, who cannot appeal against the panel’s decision, have been left confused and frustrated.

Natasha Beames, whose 13-year-old daughter Annie is in Year Eight, said: “I don’t understand what policy they are reading from.

Oxford Mail: Natasha Beames with her daughter Annie, 13, who is in Year Eight at King Alfred's Academy

“You can’t say something is unsafe and then tell the children to go and walk it.

“I worry for my daughter.”

Mrs Beames believed the inspection should have taken place in winter, rather than summer, to show the bridleway at its worst.

She said: “Again, they have done another walk of the path on a hot summer day, not when it’s piddling down with rain and the potholes are filled with water.

“On a lovely June day, it can come across as a lovely, beautiful walk. On a winter day, it is covered in mud and puddles and it’s raining and it’s dark.

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“You have got no street lighting, it’s cold and in the open. You have got no houses to protect you from the weather. It’s in the middle of nowhere.”

Sarah Chambers, whose son is a pupil, said: “Walking the route on a lovely summer's day is nothing like doing it in midwinter, when it is dark, the route is covered in water and you just can't see how deep the potholes are.

Oxford Mail: A side-by-side comparison of the route on December 21, 2022, (left) and on June 21 this year, just

“I would have hoped that they would have at least required Highways to improve this section of the path and maybe considered some innovative solutions like solar lights to make it a little less treacherous on dark days. Things like this would help.”

Michael Hadley previously said he would not let his 14-year-old daughter walk the route, and he was worried for the safety of his 10-year-old daughter when she starts at the school next year.

“The route was checked during a heatwave. Ridiculous,” said Mr Hadley, who serves in the military.

“If I am away serving my country, the least local government could do for me is keep my children safe. I am appalled.”

Councillor Paul Barrow, who represents Ridgeway on Vale of White Horse District Council, said: “This is so the wrong decision, a bad, bad decision. It’s an issue of child welfare and safety.”

“I can’t believe that this decision has been made. It’s a John McEnroe ‘you cannot be serious’ moment.

“I will be contacting as many county councillors as I can because this must not be the final decision. It is appalling.”

A county council spokesman said: “Children going to and from school at the start and end of the day are not walking in darkness. Other children are likely to be walking at that time so they won’t be alone even if not accompanied by a parent.

“The definition of safety is provided in statutory guidance and applied by a qualified Road Safety Inspector when making the local authority’s assessment.

“The process is taking place when schools are in session and close to a time when children would be walking. During winter months there might be greater likelihood for puddles, but we do not believe this would make it difficult to walk along the route.”