More than 20,000 pupils in rural England have lost free school transport in the last three years as county councils struggle to meet the costs.
Local authorities have warned that more cutbacks to home to school transport will emerge unless the government acknowledges the “rural premium”, where transport costs in remote areas can become up to 10 times higher than in neighbouring cities.
New analysis from the County Councils Network (CCN) shows that 29 of 36 county councils reduced their expenditure on home to school transport between 2014 and 2017, leaving 22,352 fewer pupils receiving free school transport services.
We pay a rural premium in delivering these transport services, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain subsidies
Councils are now calling for a “fair deal” for rural areas, where costs are higher due to longer journeys, housing growth, worse routes and more pupils who are eligible for the transport subsidies.
Local authorities have a statutory duty to provide free school transport to pupils under eight who attend their nearest school if it is more than two miles away from their home. They must also provide transport for pupils over eight who have to travel more than three miles.
However, many rural councils have historically provided transport for pupils to schools other than their nearest, but this is now under threat.
Ian Hudspeth, leader of Oxfordshire County Council and CCN spokesman for education and children’s services, said rural councils can “scarcely afford” to provide free transport “beyond our statutory duties” and the “historic underfunding of county authorities must be addressed”.
“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 but to cut back on free transport services for thousands of rural pupils, and tighten eligibility,” he said.
Earlier this year, Suffolk County Council consulted on controversial plans to only provide transport to a pupil’s nearest school. The proposals could save £3 million a year, but will see around 3,700 pupils losing access to free transport.
The CCN’s analysis shows that county councils spent an average of £93 per child on home to school transport in 2017, compared with £10 per child in cities and towns. In North Yorkshire, the average cost was £207 per child, significantly more than the amount spent in the neighbouring areas of Leeds (£15), Bradford (£30) and Wakefield (£23).
According to the network, the “historic underfunding of county areas” means that by the end of the decade, counties will receive £161 of core funding per head compared to an England average of £266 and a London average of £459.
CCN is “very supportive” of the government’s current consultation into a new method of funding councils from 2020, but warned that “unsustainable funding situations for counties” must be addressed.
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said the government was conducting a fair funding review “in order to make sure local authorities can meet the needs of their local communities.”