School transport is not an issue - even in a non-Brexit world - which
registers much with national politicians and policy makers. At a local
level it's very different. It’s a service under considerable strain
with increasing demands, unit costs and parental expectations around
school choice within a shrinking financial envelope.
Local authorities are currently spending just over a billion pounds a
year, and rising, on home-to-school transport on fewer and fewer
pupils; falling by 12% over ten years. Not through a lack of demand.
That's rising. But being forced into a situation whereby they are
increasingly bringing their policies into line with their minimum
duties under the law; sounds familiar? So now, two-thirds of school
transport funding goes to support children with special educational
needs, who represents just over a fifth who qualify for support; with
other families seeing their support withdrawn or required to pay.
Major urban areas have been cushioned by free and concessionary
travel schemes provided by Transport for London and other passenger
transport authorities, worth on average £10m pa for metropolitan areas
outside London. This has meant that the vast majority of cuts have
fallen onto rural areas, creating a two-tier entitlement and impacting
on school choice, now increasingly dependent upon parental means.
There is a sense that the policy and funding framework has become
outdated, and certainly unsustainable. Indeed, the walking distances
which determine free entitlements are still the same when first
introduced in the 1944 Education Act when children attended their
nearest school and left at 16. In contrast we have seen a rapidly
diminishing role for local authorities in the oversight and funding of
schools, a dismantling of the traditional notion of school catchment
areas replaced with school choice and a more diverse education
landscape, and now young people are expected to stay in education and
training until they are 18.
Against that background the Association of Directors of Children’s
Services have called for a review of the current universal offer
urging greater targeting of resources, and for responsibility for
school transport to be devolved to schools (with local authorities
retaining responsibilities for special needs transport). Those in the
transport sector have pointed to the need for a national concessionary
(half) fare scheme focused on the inequality that exists for those
living in rural areas. The hard pressed further education sector are
calling for the legislative and funding framework to be updated to
recognise that the law requires all young people (in England) to
continue in education or training until at least their 18th birthday.
For now funding cuts and managing parental expectations continue to
be the main concern for local councils. We may have gone past the peak
of cuts in mainstream provision but attention is being turned to
tightening special needs entitlements. The Government has reacted by
revising its statutory guidance, and responding to wider concerns on
special needs funding providing an extra £700 million for special
education needs (and disabilities) in the recent spending review.
That’s been welcomed, but deemed to be insufficient given the widening
funding gap being tackled by local authorities on children’s services.
And the ground is shifting as local authorities warn about the impact
on transport of rising school populations and a shortage of school
places. But the question remains who pays: the government, local
government, education providers, transport providers or parents
themselves? It’s time for government to step in and decide.
Mark Upton, is a freelance consultant on public policy and public
affairs, and this blog is drawn from his briefing on school
transport for members of the Local Government Information Unit: