Increasingly difficult to fund free school transport

With transport costs in county areas ten times higher than in neighbouring cities, the County Councils Network has warned that it is becoming increasingly difficult to fund free school transport for pupils in rural areas.

According to the CCN’s analysis, the average costs per head for home to school transport in 2017, covering free buses, taxis, and other transport for eligible pupils, reached £93 per child, compared to £10 per child in cities and towns. Therefore, county leaders are calling for a ‘fair deal’ for rural areas, saying that services will continue being reduced unless government recognises the higher costs of services in rural areas and funds those councils adequately.

There are higher costs to transport pupils in rural areas due to longer distances travelled and availability of routes, as well as higher numbers of pupils who are eligible for free transport in rural areas compared to urban ones. This means, councils have had to introduce charges, reduce transport, and tighten eligibility with 29 out of 36 county councils reducing their expenditure on home to school transport between 2014 and 2017.

Broken down, home to school transport in North Yorkshire costs £207 per head, significantly more than neighbouring towns and cities such as Leeds (£15), Bradford (£30), and Wakefield (£23). However, despite these costs, counties will receive £161 of core funding per head compared to an England average of £266 and £459 in London y the end of the decade, and their funding from government will almost half over that period.

Ian Hudspeth, CCN spokesman for education and children’s services, said: “There is clear evidence that there are significant extra costs in delivering school transport services in rural county areas, with rurality a key issue exacerbated by a reduction in bus routes, and an increase in housing numbers. We pay a rural premium in delivering these transport services, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain subsidies. Regrettably, we have had little choice to cut back on free transport services for thousands of rural pupils, and tighten eligibility.

“This is why the historic underfunding of county authorities must be addressed in a fairer funding settlement. Providing free transport to our schools is a much-valued service, yet it is one we can scarcely afford beyond our statutory duties. We very much support the direction of travel laid out by government, but the rhetoric must be backed up with real, tangible change to the way councils are funded, with the recognition of the increased costs of delivering services in rural settings. We will continue to work with Ministers to ensure that the new formula funds councils in based on what they genuinely need to provide vital local services such as school transport.”