School Transport Consultation Flags Up ChangePosted in : Cassidy's Comments on 12 November 2019
One of the first major consultations in 20 years by the Department of Education (DE) into school transport has reported that there is "broad support" for parents to pay a charge for home to school transport. Frank Cassidy discusses the implications of a potential charge for rural communities in Northern Ireland.
The first major consultation in 20 years by the Department of Education (DE) into school transport has reported that there is "broad support" for parents to pay a charge for home to school transport. However, respondents have also said that any fee would have to be accompanied by an expansion of the service and families on low incomes should be exempt from any charge. It was understood that arrangements for pupils with special needs would be considered separately. More than 5,500 people responded to the online questionnaire while government departments, school principals, politicians, charities and unions were also consulted.
This consultation follows up on a warning in 2017 by the Education Authority that school transport would have to be reviewed in the light of escalating school budget deficits and education funding shortfalls. Back in 2017 the BBC reported that the EA's Chief Executive Gavin Boyd was warning that because of the new realities in education funding, "EA could not continue to do all of the same things in all of the same ways as (they) have done in the past". Charging families for school transport which is currently free would therefore be part of budget saving measures being considered and it was promised that a consultation on school transport arrangements would be carried out before any changes were introduced.
It was not defined how much the EA would propose to charge per pupil, but the BBC reported then, that the EA board had discussed a possible yearly fee of between £50-£200. Currently in the Republic of Ireland, there is an annual charge of 100 euros (£87) for each primary school pupil eligible for school transport, and 350 euros (£305) for each post-primary pupil, with the maximum amount any family could be charged for school transport being 650 euros (£566) per year.
Given the absence of our local devolved decision makers in Stormont, no major changes can be made to school transport policy without ministerial approval. In the event that our political system ever recovers from the current chaos and returns to what passes here for “normal”, it is important to unpack some of the issues surrounding what would be a profound change to the education landscape. The present status quo is that pupils are eligible for free home to school transport if they live more than three miles from their post-primary school or two miles from their primary school. About 84,000 pupils (around 25% of the school population) currently benefit - at an annual cost to the Education Authority of £81m, rising in future to an estimated £88m.
Firstly, in the consultation responses, many concerns were expressed about the safety of children, especially in rural areas. There have been tragedies over the years which underline the absolute imperative to prioritise safety around as the report stresses; "children walking or waiting for buses on roads with no footpaths or street lighting".
Any reduction in pupil bus use would inevitably increase car journeys to and from school and increase congestion on the roads, especially at the school gates; increase air pollution and pose bigger safety risks both in urban and rural settings. Surely no public policy decision should increase the negative environmental impact of car use and discourage public transport usage.
The Department of Education Circular 1996/41 (updated) is the chapter and verse on school transport provision and eligibility. A key paragraph diplomatically delineates the Northern Ireland circumstances re. the separation of school categories.
“To be eligible for transport assistance to a school outside the statutory walking distance, application must first of all be made to all schools in the same category that are within statutory walking distance before a preference is expressed for the more distant school. To qualify for assistance to the more distant school, applicants must be able to show that they were unable to gain a place in such schools in the same category within statutory walking distance of their home”.
The high cost of our school transport is caused in part by the rurality factor of Northern Ireland’s population distribution. Some of our larger post primary schools have catchment areas up to 40 miles in diameter. To make it more expensive for families from remoter country areas to access the maximum curriculum opportunities for their children and potentially disadvantage their future life chances in comparison to those who live in urban settings would be grossly unjust. Additionally, the richness of rural culture and communities are at the very core of our Northern Ireland identity and a change to free school transport could damage their viability through potential long-term rural depopulation.
The elephant in the room is always the multiplicity of school types and inevitable duplication of provision and this of course makes our education provision more expensive compared to other jurisdictions. The patient, gradual breaking down of barriers through the area learning community projects has born some fruit, but the main framework of our system remains largely unchanged. Is this not the main reason that our education system is so expensive? Can it be right to make it more difficult for people to live where they need to rather than face the uncomfortable realities of structural change?
Unintended consequences will undoubtedly follow if school transport arrangements change. House price inflation in postcodes near popular schools will increase social segregation, cause disadvantage to pupils from lower income families and reduce upward social mobility. There has been justified criticism of the negative effects of our selective system and the advantage it can give to children from more affluent backgrounds, but it also needs to be said that schools here have been very successful over many years in overcoming the social disadvantage factor and gaining success for pupils from all social circumstances and all parts of N Ireland. I fear that a change to free school transport could endanger this important work and actually increase inequality.
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