An article in The Times this week (requires subscription) suggests that local authorities are spending more than £1 billion a year on taxis and other personalised forms of school transport. This revelation begs the question of whether this level of spending can continue following the proposed public sector cuts likely to be included in the government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010.
The current position
Under the Education and Inspections Act 2006, local authorities must provide free transport to and from school for “eligible” children for whom no (or no suitable) free travel arrangements are provided. For more information on school transport, see Practice note, School travel.
Eligible children include children who:
- Have been excluded from school.
- Live more than three miles away from their school (if over the age of eight) (two miles for those under the age of 8).
- Have disability or mobility problems or special needs.
- Cannot reasonably be expected to walk to school because of the nature of the route that they would have to take.
- Live more than two miles from their school (age 8-11) and either receive free school meals or the parent that they reside with is awarded Working Tax Credit at the maximum rate.
(Schedule 35B, Education Act 1996.)
Local authorities also have a discretion to make arrangements for non-eligible children if they consider it necessary, this could include providing free transport for children attending faith schools that are further away than their nearest school.
So, if cuts are made to the school transport budget, where are they likely to be made and how can local authorities cut costs?
Firstly, it is likely that it will be discretionary free transport offered by local authorities that will first come under scrutiny for potential savings, as local authorities are not legally obliged to provide this like they are for “eligible children”.
Secondly, possible cost-cutting measures for local authorities could include:
- Asking parents to cover any shortfall in transport funding in relation to non-eligible children.
- Reviewing existing transport contracts and where necessary retendering them to ensure the most economically advantageous tenders are chosen.
- Encouraging carsharing where possible.
- Conducting reviews of the children who receive home to school transport to see if any children could share taxis or minibuses.
- Making changes to any discretionary free transport currently offered. For example, putting conditions on free transport, however this should not include totally stopping the provision of free transport for non-eligible pupils, as was the case in a recent LGO decision, to do so could amount to maladministration or be subject to judicial review if found to be unreasonable. For more information on judicial review, see our Practice note.
- If the transport is being provided in-house, looking at how economical the vehicles being used are. In some cases outsourcing could be a cheaper option.
- Reconsidering the transport routes taken (either in-house or as part of a procurement exercise) to ensure that drivers are employed to full capacity, this could include an alteration to pick up and drop off times to ensure maximum efficiency.
- If the service is being provided in-house, employment practices and contracts may need to be examined to ensure that value for money is being achieved. For example, are drivers being paid for idle time? If so, is it possible to change their contract terms, or could this trigger a service redesign which may involve redundancies?
Need for effective, transparent consultation
However, local authorities should ensure that before making any radical changes to their home to school transport policies that they consult those likely to be affected, this should include both pupils and their parents. As part of this consultation process, local authorities should also consider conducting an equality impact assessment to determine whether the proposed cuts will unfairly discriminate against one group of children as required under equality legislation (see Practice note, Public sector equality duties ). For more information on how to avoid legal challenge when making decisions, see Practice note, Decision-making by public bodies: avoiding legal challenge.
One thing is certain though, with the Department for Education having to make £311 million reduction in the amount available to local authorities through area based grants, savings are going to have to be made.