Plans to fund free transport for disadvantaged pupils to grammar schools could leave councils and schools out of pocket, with one Oxfordshire councillor warning that the move could cost up to £5,000 a child in taxi fares.
In Wednesday’s Budget, the chancellor Philip Hammond announced that the government’s “extended rights” transport scheme will soon include selective schools. He allocated £20 million for the scheme between 2018 and 2022.
Pupils who are entitled to free school meals or whose parents claim maximum working tax credits will be entitled to free transport to grammar schools between 2 and 15 miles from their homes. How far they are expected to travel without free transport depends on their age.
But the scheme’s financial viability has already been questioned, with particular concerns over rural areas and non-selective authorities that border areas with grammar schools.
Councils currently administer the free school transport scheme.
Local authorities with non-selective schools should not have to pay the transport costs
John Howson, an education academic and county councillor in Oxfordshire, said his authority could be left to foot the bill for transporting pupils from the county’s northern villages to grammar schools in nearby Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire.
“Local authorities with non-selective schools should not have to pay the transport costs under any new rules should children opt to attend selective schools in another authority,” he said.
“The new arrangements could cost council taxpayers up to £5,000 per child per year if a taxi had to be provided.”
In Suffolk, school transport is already deemed “an expensive and massively complex exercise”.
Rachel Gooch, a secondary school governor, said bussing pupils from a 15-mile radius in her area “may involve stops in perhaps 50 villages and hamlets”.
“My school does this currently, running 30 buses that can take an hour to arrive. For a smaller school with fewer buses making more stops, it will take even longer and cost a fortune.
“Meanwhile, will we be bussing those who live next to the grammar but don’t get in [to the grammar] to another school further away?”
There are also fears that the move could adversely affect pupil numbers, and therefore funding levels, at under-subscribed comprehensive or secondary moderns near selective schools.
Unions have also asked why grammar schools are prioritised when free transport schemes in some areas face significant cuts.
Mary Bousted, the general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, accused the chancellor of “throwing more money at grammar schools”, and said the government’s spending pledges were “totally insufficient” to tackle the wider funding crisis in schools.
Hammond said that for “many parents the cost of travel can be a barrier to exercising that choice”.
“Pupils typically travel three times as far to attend selective schools, so we will extend free school transport to include all children on free school meals who attend a selective school.
“We are resolved that talent alone should determine the opportunities a child enjoys.”
While councils lose over £6m for school transport
The government has slashed more than £6 million from the money it hands to councils for free school transport schemes.
Latest figures show it paid councils £18.8 million to fund their schemes this year – compared with £25.1 million in 2014-15.
It insists the level of funding paid for each pupil eligible for free transport has “remained the same for the past two years”.
But Schools Week has previously reported how the cut is forcing councils to make up the cash from other parts of their budgets, with many reducing their free school transport offer.
Essex will now only pay for transport to a child’s nearest school with places, a change that saves it an estimated £238,000 a year.
West Berkshire also aims to save £387,000 each year by cutting back on the level of service it offers.
Cornwall has lost the most cash – £310,000 over the two years.
Any new provision must be fully funded and not place an additional financial burden on councils
Kent and Essex councils have lost more than £200,000, with another 16 councils losing more than £100,000.
Chancellor Philip Hammond’s new £200 million package to extend the free transport scheme is only for disadvantaged pupils to travel to grammar schools.
Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Authority’s children and young people’s board, said: “While councils are extremely supportive of transport being provided to children most in need, any new provision must be fully funded and not place an additional financial burden on councils.”
The government funding allows councils to pay for home-to-school travel for children from low-income families who go to schools beyond a statutory walking distances. The number of pupils entitled to cash is calculated from spring census data each year.
Research from the Campaign for Better Transport, published in 2015, found that nearly four in five councils had reduced their school transport offer since 2010.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Local authorities are expected to use their Local Government Finance Settlement appropriately to meet their local needs, including the requirement for home-to-school travel and transport.”