Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Viewpoint: Slashing those school-run bills

At a time when there is increasing pressure on the education budget - the dispute over back pay for the classroom assistants being but one example - it seems incredible that millions of pounds are being swallowed up each year by ferrying children to school.

According to figures released by Education Minister Caitriona Ruane, the five education and library boards have run up a bill of £310m over the past five years on pupil transport. And of this figure, some £38m has gone on taxi fares.

Sammy Wilson, the chairman of the Assembly's Education Committee, has called for transport provision in general and the use of taxis in particular to be reviewed. But the department says that taxi services are provided primarily for special needs children and for those who live in remote areas in which bus travel is not viable.

Mr Wilson deserves credit for raising an important issue. But he does his cause no good by calling into question the ending of three-for-two seating on school buses.

He says the decision to make it mandatory for every child to have a seat is "hysterical nonsense" but this is very far from being the case. The policy was revised on the justifiable grounds of safety.

These days, many schoolchildren are adult-sized and to expect three to squeeze onto a seat for two as the bus jolts its way through city traffic or travels at speed along country roads is both uncomfortable and potentially dangerous. Mr Wilson should realise that safety - particularly of children - cannot be compromised.

That said, the bill for school transport must be reduced and one means would be to seek a greater parental contribution. If families choose to live miles from the school which their children attend, and ignore the local school, they should surely bear more of the cost.

Another possible way to cut costs would be to go out to tender for provision of school transport. At present the vast majority of buses are provided by education boards themselves and by Translink. Provided safety is not compromised, the private sector could easily play a greater role - and competition usually produces savings.

There may, as the department maintains, be no alternative to taxis in certain cases, especially when special needs or disabled children are concerned. But in other instances, could the bill not be reduced by using taxis as a feeder service to the nearest bus stop or railway station rather than undertaking the complete journey?

With the school run representing a fifth of morning rush-hour traffic, there is an urgent need to put more pupils onto public transport - or onto their feet or bicycles. Not only would costs be reduced, but children would be adopting a healthier lifestyle.

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