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School Transport Matters

26.05.2016 | Anonymous | Save our buses
Photo: teens alight from a school bus

Nearly 80% of local authorities have reduced school transport since 2010. Sian Thornthwaite of STC has written this guest blog about the crisis in school and college transport.

"School transport has always been a Cinderella service in Britain.  In America large iconic yellow buses are on every street, but here our school transport - usually using minibuses, local coaches and taxis - is largely invisible. Despite that, until recently almost one million children each day travelled to school or college by bus or coach arranged by local authorities. 

Since the Butler Act of 1944 introduced compulsory secondary education, local authorities have had a duty to ensure children can access education, irrespective of their means or place of residence. That meant providing free transport to pupils living more than walking distance from school. For millions of rural children, and for those with special needs, school transport has been a vital service. Although many adults would perhaps prefer not to share their journey to work with 40 teenagers, school buses have also provided valuable peak hour bus services in rural areas, where otherwise public transport would be unviable. 

With recent authority cuts, we were already becoming aware of the loss of rural bus services - Campaign for Better Transport report 2,400 bus routes reduced or cut completely since 2010. However, this month our survey of LEAs also paints a stark picture for school transport. Since 2008 the number of pupils receiving school transport has dropped by nearly 30%. Access to education in England is becoming increasingly dependent upon where you live, and your ability to pay for transport or to use a car.    

Since 2008, 350,000 young people in rural areas have lost their school transport service - mainly in rural England, travelling to faith schools or post-16 education. This is equivalent to nearly 10,000 buses. With little alternative but to use cars given the distances to rural secondary schools and sixth forms/colleges, this is generating an estimated additional 100 million car trips each year, at the busiest times of day. Furthermore, with budgets continuing to be under pressure, local authorities are planning to cut school transport further in the next few years - including for pupils with special needs. 

Young people are now required by law to stay in education or training until the age of 18, but there is no duty on authorities or colleges to provide transport to enable them to get to lessons or work beyond the age of 16. Even where transport is provided for these students, fares are rising. Charges for post 16 transport are up to £1,000+ a year, yet the Education Maintenance Allowance to help with costs of getting to college has been abolished.   

For those young people of compulsory school aged under 16, parents face an increasingly punitive regime if they fail to ensure their child’s attendance at school - but have fewer affordable transport options to get them there.  

In contrast, provision for school children in urban areas, although facing cuts, remains more generous. This is particularly true in London where a child can travel by bus free to any school they choose, meaning they can afford to travel independently, to stay for after school activities without being reliant on lifts, or travel to a more distant college to pursue a course of their choice at the age of 16. Is it any coincidence that in London bus use for the school journey has risen, car use fallen, educational outcomes improved and travel poverty reduced?

In rural England, unless there is a recognition that supporting access to education is vital for young people, a vicious circle of further cuts will exacerbate already worrying losses to local buses, limiting educational opportunity for those without private means and increasing (school and college) transport poverty and isolation for young people."

Sian Thornthwaite is director of specialist transport consultancy STC.  She has been involved in children and young people’s transport research since the 1980s.

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