Shake up of school transport likely as scrutiny committee agrees changes are needed
Hundreds of families are likely to be affected as both North and West unitaries are looking at charging parents more for travel as budgets bust
By Sarah Ward
Changes to the current system of school transport across the county is looking more likely after the North unitary’s scrutiny committee agreed that the long-standing policy needs to change.
Both unitaries in the North andWest of Northants overspent by several million on their home to school transport in the most recent financial year and recently consulted on changes which would see costs of travel increase and also the numbers eligible for free transport reduce.
The proposed changes will see the current linked (or feeder) school system dropped, which will mean that students would only receive free transport to their nearest school, where walking was not an option.
The councils are also suggesting that the bus fare for families who are not eligible for free transport rises from the £600 price (set ten years ago) to a new price of around £1,000.
The council’s ruling executives will make final decisions over the next few months before the new policies are published in September ahead of parents making a decision about where to apply for a secondary school place. The new policy would come into effect from September 2024.
It is anticipated the reduction in support to parents, will make more parents opt to send their child to the nearest school and could impact on the number of applications to certain more remote schools, such as Prince William in Oundle and Corby Business Academy on Priors Hall estate, which bus in the vast majority of their pupils.
A report before the North unitary’s place and environment scrutiny committee on Tuesday night said ‘there is a need to take action to control spend.’
“The current service is subsidised by the council, which is using funds provided from general taxation to benefit those families who are not eligible for free transport and who choose to use the council’s home to school transport service. These families are not legally entitled to this service and yet the council is providing a significant subsidy for their use of it.
“The current fare for discretionary transport has not been reviewed or increased for 10 years. In that period, costs for providing transport have increased substantially and this cost is borne by all tax-payers who are currently subsidising the service.”
Details provided in the report said that currently in the North of the county 4,133 students are transported to school by the local authority - with 3,694 of those free places. 296 pupils purchase a discretionary seat - which parents pay for. However the authority says that due to the current policy which says that every child who applies for a seat before the current May deadline is provided with one, the authority picks up the additional transport bill, which it calculates at around £538,000.
By changing the policy, the authority would reduce its bill by at least this much.
Currently ten schools account for the vast majority of transport. The table below shows this:
The consultation in the North was replied to by more than 500 people. The majority said they did not want the cost to increase or the feeder school system, which saw some families receive free transport to schools which were not closest to their homes, to be dropped.
A report outlining the responses said:
“Respondents were invited to tell us of any negative impacts they feel the proposals may make, along with any suggestions on how any potential negative impacts could be reduced or avoided. A total of 96 respondents shared their comments. A large number of respondents gave details about their own personal circumstances and mentioned many perceived potential impacts changes to the policy may create.
“About a third of the comments received were in relation to the lack of alternative travel options for families to be able to ensure their children reached school including concerns about logistics and managing the time around their own working hours and potentially having to change jobs. There was particular concern around the lack of public transport or none at all from rural areas.
“Approximately a quarter of comments were in relation to the financial pressures the potential increase would have on families, with those on low incomes and single parents particularly impacted in having to find additional funds and current service users feeling penalised. Several added that the proposed increase was too much and that cumulatively, if there was more than one child, there would be an even larger financial burden on families.”
The current issues within the transport system were demonstrated at the meeting as officers said they did not know how many pupils currently receive a free school place to a school that is not their nearest, but rather a linked school. This is because of issues with the council’s data collection.
A report in November said the home to school transport service - which has been run by the West authority on behalf of both councils - was in a mess.
At the meeting the majority of councillors, none of whom are current parents with children at school, agree that changes are needed.
Labour’s Mark Pengelly said he thought the recommendations were fair, but said the authority needed to look at where schools were being built - saying that new schools should be close to existing populations which would remove the need for transport.
Labour’ Val Anslow said she knew the proposals would cause ‘angst’ but said if parents chose to send a child to a certain primary school they could not expect the secondary school they attend to be the linked school.
And Conservative Lee Wilkes said the current system isn’t sustainable.
“It is from a bygone era before these costs were so high,” he said. He said many taxpayers were not aware they were subsidising parents who decided to send their child to a school which was not the closest to their home.
Green Party councillor Emily Fedorowycz said the report was not thorough enough in terms of detailing how many different buses were used and had not looked in detail into an electric service of climate change impacts.
The committee agreed to make four recommendations to the executive including dropping the current linked school policy and increasing fares, but in a staggered way, rather than the current £400 jump which has been proposed.
The West unitary will discuss its consultation findings shortly.