England’s rural councils today warn it is becoming increasingly difficult to fund free school transport for pupils because they pay a ‘rural premium’, with transport costs in county areas ten times higher than in neighbouring cities.
New analysis from the County Councils Network (CCN) show that for county councils, the average costs per head for home to school transport – free buses, taxis, and other transport for eligible pupils – are £93 per child, compared to £10 per child in cities and towns. County leaders warn they will have to continue reducing services - with thousands of pupils no longer receiving school transport – unless government recognises the higher costs of services in rural areas and funds those councils adequately.
In the East of England there are large regional variations with the county councils spending significantly more per-head on free home to school transport than their urban neighbours. Home to school transport in Cambridgeshire costs £114 per head, significantly more than neighbouring urban regional councils such as Luton (£15), Thurrock(£30) and Southend (£50).
This is due to the higher numbers of pupils who are eligible for free transport in rural areas compared to urban ones, exacerbated by housing growth. There are also higher costs to transport pupils in rural areas due to longer distances travelled and availability of routes. The figures are analysed from government data which takes the total amount of expenditure a council spends yearly on home to school transport divided by the total number of pupils in that area.
As a result of these higher costs, and due to wider budget cuts that have disproportionally hit rural areas, county authorities have had ‘little choice’ but to reduce school transport services to reduce overall expenditure. This means they have had to introduce charges, reduce transport, and tighten eligibility. In total, 29 out of 36 county councils reduced their expenditure on home to school transport between 2014 and 2017.
Data from 20 of those councils shows that thousands of pupils no longer receive home to school transport and have to find other means of getting to school, or pay charges. Between 2014 and 2017, services were scaled back meaning that 22,352 pupils less in 2017 were benefitting home to school transport services compared to three years previously.
County leaders say that the way councils are currently funded does not adequately account for these the higher proportion of eligible pupils in county areas, with the problem exacerbated by dramatic reductions in rural bus routes.
Under government eligibility, pupils under the age of eight can get free school transport if they live over two miles away from their nearest school, and for pupils over 8 if they live three miles away from their nearest school. Many offered free transport over their statutory duty until it became unsustainable due to funding cuts. Those leaders are calling for sustainable funding for all councils and the Government’s review of council funding to ensure a ‘fairer deal’ for rural shires.
Leaders of those councils say home to school transport cutbacks will continue unless the government acknowledges the higher costs of delivering services in rural areas, and corrects the historic underfunding of county areas in comparison to London and the cities. By the end of the decade, counties will receive £161 of core funding per head compared to an England average of £266 and £459 in London, and their funding from government will almost half over that period. School transport is largely funded by these government grants.
The government is currently consulting on a new method of funding councils from 2020. The latest consultation on the review indicates that rurality will form a big part of a new funding formula.
CCN says it is ‘very supportive’ of direction of travel in the current funding review for councils, but it warns that the underfunding of counties must be addressed, as it as has led to ‘unsustainable funding situations for counties’, especially in delivering adult social care and children’s services. On average, almost two-thirds of county budgets are spent on these two services alone, with money increasingly re-routed from library services, economic growth, and transport.
Ian Hudspeth, County Councils Network spokesman for education and children’s services, and leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said: “There is clear evidence that there are significant extra costs in delivering school transport services in rural county areas, with rurality a key issue exacerbated by a reduction in bus routes, and an increase in housing numbers. We pay a rural premium in delivering these transport services, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain subsidies. Regrettably, we have had little choice to cut back on free transport services for thousands of rural pupils, and tighten eligibility.
“This is why the historic underfunding of county authorities must be addressed in a fairer funding settlement. Providing free transport to our schools is a much-valued service, yet it is one we can scarcely afford beyond our statutory duties.
“We very much support the direction of travel laid out by government, but the rhetoric must be backed up with real, tangible change to the way councils are funded, with the recognition of the increased costs of delivering services in rural settings. We will continue to work with Ministers to ensure that the new formula funds councils in based on what they genuinely need to provide vital local services such as school transport.”
Cllr Steve Count, leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said: “The legislation governing home to school transport has remained largely unchanged for over 70 years and as part of our #Fairdeal4Cambs campaign we are pressing for a review. Cambridgeshire, predominantly rural in nature, currently spends more than £8m a year on getting children to and from school.”
East of England breakdowns – home to school transport costs per head
Bold indicates county council area
Suffolk - £142
Norfolk - 132
Cambridgeshire - £114
Bedford - £100
Central Bedfordshire - £96
Essex - £63
Southend - £50
Hertfordshire - £36
Peterborough - £34
Thurrock - £30
Luton - £15