Free school transport strategy to undergo major overhaul
The Department of Education has said that free school transport in Northern Ireland could be set to change due to the current "very difficult financial climate".
Pupils in Northern Ireland currently receive free school transport if they live more than two miles from their nearest suitable school under the age of 11, or three miles over the age of 11.
The policy has been in place for more than 20 years.
The department is conducting a review "to ensure that home to school transport is fit for purpose and is sustainable over the long term".
Any decision on changes to the current system would have to be signed off by a minister, with no Stormont Assembly currently in place. Around 84,000 pupils are currently eligible for transport assistance, which is around 26% of the school population.
The cost of home to school transport provision is approximately £81m per year.
The review will not consider home to school transport for children with a statement of special educational needs, which specifies a special transport need.
A survey from the department aims to engage parents, children, school staff and the wider public on the issue.
The public consultation is not expected to take place until early 2020.
A Department of Education spokesperson said: "The current home to school transport policy has remained largely unchanged for over 20 years; however, in this very difficult financial climate, we need to seriously consider whether we can continue to do things in the same way.
"This process of engagement is about asking all stakeholders if they think the current policy is helping the right pupils within the available resources.
"The review is about gathering ideas and views on the shape of a future policy. The review will focus on ensuring a revised policy will deliver value for money, including the contribution that home to school transport provision could make to the delivery of a broad range of Programme for Government outcomes.
"Not all options would necessarily involve a reduction in expenditure or the number of pupils in receipt of home to school transport.
"At the end of any review of this kind, it will be for a future minister to make decisions on whether there should be changes to the current policy.
"This review will allow a minister to take informed decisions on this important service."
An online questionnaire has been launched on the department's website and officials also intend to hold a number of meetings in different towns across Northern Ireland in the coming months.
It is anticipated that, subject to political agreement, a public consultation on the way forward will take place in early 2020.
It is unlikely that any revised policy would take effect before September 2021.