Education news

`No time' for multi-million pound school transport savings

Nearly one third of the school population qualifies for transport assistance

A shake-up of school transport, designed to save millions of pounds, is being shelved because there is not enough time to make changes.

An independent review published findings more than a year ago but there will be no change made by the current assembly.

The Department of Education said there was "limited time left" meaning wholesale change was not possible.

As far back as his first day as minister in May 2011, John O'Dowd told the Irish News that he could not "get past" the annual cost of free home-to-school transport, which at that time was about £70 million.

It has since risen, and it is now conservatively estimated that £100m expenditure is provided by Northern Ireland government departments.

At the same time, there is significant pressure on education budgets with £200m savings to be made across the system.

In late 2013, Mr O'Dowd appointed an independent panel to review the policy which determines eligibility for free travel. It has long been argued that the public should not have to foot the bill for children whose parents choose to send them to a school 30 miles away when there is another one within walking distance.

The panel made 69 recommendations, the most radical of which was a suggestion that assistance be provided to those attending their nearest school only. This would save £26m a year.

Nearly one third of the school population qualifies for transport assistance.

The current transport framework, the review concluded, was "complex and generous". If the nearest school in any of six categories is more than two miles (primary) or three miles (post-primary) from home, pupils can then choose to attend any school in that category over the distance, supported by transport assistance.

There is no maximum distance. This means pupils can get free bus travel to any grammar school of their choice, if they live beyond the three miles. In towns including Crumlin, hundreds of children leave each day on buses to travel to schools in Belfast, even though there is a secondary provider in the area.

The panel found that linking transport entitlement to the categorisation of schools was biased, in that it supported some choice but not others, such as single sex education, or choice based on subject.

"It is not recommended a system of free school transport for eligible pupils be replaced with one based on parental payment or charges. The question being considered is not whether parents should have the right to choose which school their child attends, but rather whether the state should continue to support free transport to facilitate that choice," the panel said.

It recommended that transport assistance be provided "to the nearest school only (or to the nearest Irish medium school/unit or integrated school)", which would save £26m per annum.

The Department of Education confirmed it would not be making any changes recommended by the review, which cost more than £150,000.

"The minister has decided that given the limited time left in this mandate a wholesale policy change is not achievable," a spokeswoman said.

"As such, no consultation will be taken forward at this time. However, I can confirm that the Education Authority and other relevant bodies have been asked to consider many of the operational recommendations contained within the independent review report. Some of these may require specific public consultation, before implementation, but this would be for the relevant body to consider."

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