Belfast Telegraph

School transport review could mean thousands of children no longer qualify for free buses

By Lindsay Fergus

Free buses should only be provided to pupils' closest school - regardless of what type of school it is, according to a major review of home to school transport.

The recommendation is made in the long-awaited Independent Review of Home to School Transport, which has been published by the Department of Education.

Only Irish-medium, integrated and special needs schools would be exempt.

If rubber-stamped by Education Minister John O'Dowd, it would mean thousands of children would no longer qualify for free buses and taxis.

However, such a move, which will undoubtedly provoke controversy, could save the cash-strapped education and library boards millions of pounds.

At present home to school transport costs the public purse more than £100m every year.

More than 300,000 pupils qualify for school transport, approximately 11% of primary and 46% of post-primary - at an average cost of £800 per pupil.

Anyone who lives more than two miles from their "nearest suitable" (controlled, Catholic maintained, integrated, Irish-medium, Catholic voluntary grammar, non-denominational voluntary grammar etc) primary or more than three miles from their nearest suitable post-primary currently qualifies for transport assistance, which is not means-tested.

If the recommendation - one of 69 - is endorsed it would mean that if your closest school was a controlled school but you opted to bypass it to attend a Catholic maintained school, you would not qualify for transport assistance. And if you bypassed a non-grammar school to attend a grammar school, you would no longer receive a free bus pass.

According to the 265-page review, "the present system disproportionately benefits those pupils attending grammar schools".

It states: "These pupils account for nearly 40% of young people receiving transport assistance and a third of school transport expenditure. Almost 60% of voluntary denominational grammar school pupils qualify for transport assistance." However, if the transport rules were changed it would not impact on parental choice when it came to selecting schools.

Mr O'Dowd would not comment on the individual recommendations, which will go out for public consultation in the new year.

Instead he stated: "This was a wide-ranging review of the current home to school transport arrangements and incorporated such considerations as entitlement, the model of delivery, and assessing the most effective and efficient co-ordination of transport for pupils, among other issues.

"This policy had not been reviewed in almost 20 years and is therefore in need of reform to make sure it is fit for purpose, cost effective and sustainable."

Other recommendations made in the report are:

  • The State continuing to resume some responsibility for home to school transport.
  • All new school sites and shared education campuses take into consideration transport and travel issues, and a strategic approach to Area Planning of special needs, integrated and Irish-medium.

Although it comes too late for the Gilmour family, whose son Adam was killed walking to school last month, the review panel has also made recommendations on safety.

The report said: "Children are especially vulnerable as pedestrians and the safety of bus stops and walk to pick up locations have been recurring themes in this review. It is recommended that the maximum walk to a bus stop should be reduced to one mile, and that bus stops located on high-speed roads to be subject to assessment to minimise risks to pupils."

Story so far

Last December the Education Minister appointed leading transport consultant, Dr Sian Thornthwaite, to chair an independent review of home to school transport policy. The panel presented its report to the Minister at the end of August. Introduced in Northern Ireland in the 1940s, the provision of home to school transport was considered necessary to ensure children who lived more than walking distance - two miles for primary pupils and three miles for post-primary pupils - could attend school.

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