Warning over funding for free home-to-school transport due to ‘rural premium’

England’s rural councils have warned that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to fund free home-to-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) shows that, for county councils, the average costs per head for home to school transport in 2017 – free buses, taxis, and other transport for eligible pupils – were £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. They have called for a ‘fair deal’ for rural areas.

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 receiving home to school transport services compared to three years previously.

The data shows some large regional variations in the costs of subsidised school transport, with home to school transport in North Yorkshire costing £207 per head, significantly more than neighbouring towns and cities such as Leeds (£15), Bradford (£30), and Wakefield (£23); Hampshire’s per head average of £62 is far greater than neighbouring Portsmouth (£6), Southampton (£12), and Reading (£23). In every region in England, county councils are the ones that are paying significantly more per-head than metropolitan and city councils.

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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.

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