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educational needs, who represents just over a fifth who qualify for support; with other families seeing their support withdrawn or required to pay.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There is a sense that the policy and funding framework has become outdated, and certainly unsustainable.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: www.lgiu.org.uk/briefing/school-transport-dfe-consultation-and-current-state-of-provision/