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Education bodies were told how to save £30 million on school transport three years ago

Former education minister John O'Dowd commissioned an independent review into home to school transport

A REPORT spelling out how to save almost £30 million annually on home-to-school transport has now sat on the shelf for more than three years.

A briefing paper this week suggested means-testing transport was a way to raise revenue and ease huge financial pressures.

It suggested up to £30m a year could be raised by shaking up the costly policy.

Free travel is provided to around 90,000 pupils. The average cost, excluding those in special schools, is approximately £700 a year.

There were options that could reduce cost, the paper said.

Similar recommendations were put forward in an independent review commissioned by former education minister John O'Dowd.

As far back as his first day as minister in May 2011, he told the Irish News he could not "get past" the annual cost, which at that time was about £70m.

Introduced in the 1940s, the provision of transport was considered necessary to ensure children who lived more than walking distance - two miles for primary and three for post-primary - could attend school. Now, nearly one third of the school population qualifies for assistance and it accounts for more than £100m of public funds each year.

The independent report warned that by 2019/20, the school population was expected to rise, which would put additional pressures on the transport budget.

"If current trends in expenditure continue, the estimated cost to DE of supporting pupils' journey to school will be in excess of £100m by 2019/20 (including support from other government departments for school travel the total is expected to rise to approximately £133m)," it warned.

More than 80 organisations with an interest in transport, including trade unions, educational support organisations, schools, parents' representatives, rural and community groups, and transport providers met the panel.

The call for evidence generated more than 1,000 responses and the panel met more than 200 pupils from primary, post-primary and special schools.

Three options for change to the entitlement criteria were analysed in this review. Based on this analysis, "it is recommended that transport assistance be provided to the nearest school only (or to the nearest Irish medium school/unit or integrated school) and the expected savings of £26m per annum".

It was shelved, however, with the Department of Education saying in late 2015 there was not enough time to make changes due to assembly mandate nearing its end.

At the time, the department said there would be no consultation taken forward but added: "The Education Authority and other relevant bodies have been asked to consider many of the operational recommendations."

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