Fresh review of school transport to take place
A FRESH review of the cost of home-to-school transport is to take place - even though a shelved report showed how to save £30 million.
The aim of the review is to ensure the system is fit for purpose and is sustainable over the long term.
More than one quarter of the school population qualifies for assistance at a cost of more than £80m each year.
Means-testing has previously been raised as a way to increase revenue and ease huge financial pressures.
An almost identical recommendation was put forward in an independent review commissioned by former education minister John O'Dowd. It was shelved, however, with the Department of Education saying in late 2015 there was not enough time to make changes due to the assembly mandate nearing its end.
The recommendations were not put out for consultation.
The department this week announced it was to undertake another policy review. It will not consider transport for children with a statement of special educational needs which specifies a special transport need.
It has started a process of engaging with parents, children, school staff and the wider public on how the future home to school transport policy should be shaped. As part of this process, an online questionnaire has been launched.
In addition, the department also intends to hold a meetings in different towns in the coming months.
"The current home to school transport policy has remained largely unchanged for over 20 years, however, in this very difficult financial climate, we need to seriously consider whether we can continue to do things in the same way," a spokeswoman said.
"This process of engagement is about asking all stakeholders if they think the current policy is helping the right pupils within the available resources. The review is about gathering ideas and views on the shape of a future policy."
The provision of transport is considered necessary to ensure children who live more than walking distance - two miles for primary and three for post-primary - can attend school. Everyone who falls outside walking distance is entitled to financial assistance.
The previous review concluded 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".
The new probe will focus on "ensuring a revised policy will deliver value for money, including the contribution that home to school transport provision could make to the delivery of a broad range of Programme for Government outcomes".
"Not all options would necessarily involve a reduction in expenditure or the number of pupils in receipt of home to school transport," a spokeswoman added.
"At the end of any review of this kind it will be for a future minister to make decisions on whether there should be changes to the current policy. This review will allow a minister to take informed decisions on this important service."
:: The online survey can be found at www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/X5KRQYT.