In January Ni4kids launched a survey asking parents for their views on the Budget cost-saving proposal of the removal, or means testing, of free home-to-school transport…

In December, in the absence of Ministers and a working Executive, the Department of Finance took the unusual step of publishing information about the broad choices available for balancing the NI Budget to help inform decisions to be taken by an incoming Executive.

One of the cost-saving options suggested was the removal, or means testing, of free home-to-school transport. Means testing could include restricting eligibility only to those in receipt of free school meals, Universal Credit or to those pupils with special educational needs, resulting in approximately 43,000 NI schoolchildren possibly being charged for home-to-school travel should Ministers approve the proposal. Back in January 2017, the BBC also reported that charging families for school transport was part of a package of measures being considered by the Education Authority (EA). At that time, they said they understood a yearly fee of between £50-£200 was being considered.

Home-to-school transport is currently provided free of charge to around 90,000 pupils here each day. The current average cost per pupil (excluding Special School pupils) is approximately £700 per annum*. Currently every child is entitled to support from the EA if there is no suitable school within the legal walking distance (two miles for primary pupils and three miles for post-primary pupils) or qualifying distance of your home, or if they have been refused a place in all suitable schools within legal walking distance/ qualifying distance.

In the belief that the proposal could have a massive impact on already very tightly squeezed family budgets – particularly in rural communities – Ni4kids felt it was extremely important to help local parents voice their concerns and have their views heard. Almost 1,000 parents took time to complete our survey about the impact of the removal of home-to-school transport and these are the results:

Over three out of four parents questioned (77%) were completely unware that home-to-school transport was being targeted as a cost-saving proposal and almost the same number (72%) were completely against the idea. Means testing was not a popular idea either with 57 per cent saying they would not support means-testing eligibility. The findings also revealed that 86 per cent of parents, who currently receive free home to school travel, say they are either ‘very concerned’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about how they would meet the additional financial cost if free home-to-school travel was indeed abolished.

Highlighting the financial concerns already facing families such as the high cost of childcare, almost half (46%) of respondents said they are already either ‘very concerned’ or ‘extremely concerned’ about the financial burden of providing (often compulsory) extras for their children’s education including; school uniform, PE kits, school trips, equipment, text books and school activities. Most worryingly, 44 per cent said that the additional cost of having to pay for their child’s home-to-school transport in the future would, or possibly could, have an impact on their child’s attendance at school. Another concern highlighted by parents was the inevitable increased amount of traffic around schools as more and more parents would opt to drive their children to school.

Alarmed about the impact on parents already facing significant costs linked to education is Koulla Yiasouma, Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, who told this magazine: “This is one of many budget balancing proposals from the Department of Finance that would require a full consultation and ministerial approval. My research last year** showed that for those who paid for it, transport was the second biggest cost after school meals. It also showed that already approximately 20,000 children did not attend educational trips due to cost, one in five parents had to go without other things to pay for school costs and over 10,000 families get into debt to cover education costs. This is before any further costs, such as the current free Home to School Transport is added.”
She added: “The cost of education to parents is already too high, proposals to reduce or remove this should be rejected due to the impact on children and young people living on low incomes and their access to education.”

Many parents who responded to the survey expressed anger over the ‘inefficiencies’ in current spending because of the way our education system is set up, resulting in unnecessary overspending in some areas – which instead could help fill gaps – before passing on more cost to families. In England, Scotland and Wales free home-to-school transport is also provided to children based on an almost identical criteria to Northern Ireland. As far as this magazine is aware, there have been no similar proposals for the removal or means-testing of free home-to-school transport in the rest of the UK, although in the Republic of Ireland, there is currently an annual charge of 100 euros (£87) for each primary school pupil eligible for school transport, and 350 euros (£305) for each post-primary pupil.

Echoing that line of thought, Tina Merron, Chief Executive of the Integrated Education Fund, said: “We can understand parents’ concerns that any cuts to the home-to-school transport service could have a big impact on family finances. But this problem should not have arisen; a reformed education system would increase efficiency and therefore reduce the budget pressures. It’s simply a question of good use of available resources. That approach could, and should, mean a sustainable network of schools which are open and welcoming to all, so that every pupil feels their nearest community school is right for them. Therefore, subsidised transport would only be needed for those living in rural areas, where there is no local school provision.”

We also asked political commentator Alex Kane for his view on the likelihood of the wheels coming off the ‘school’ bus when it comes to free travel for schoolchildren. His thoughts are, “The Assembly is unlikely to be rebooted anytime soon, so it will be Secretary of State Karen Bradley who will now make the call on budget priorities and proposed savings.

“My gut instinct is that she will steer clear of removing or restricting free home- to-school provision, primarily because of the impact it would have on poorer families. At this point the government does not want to introduce Direct Rule. It will, instead, opt for a softer form of intervention – with cuts, where they are required, being made in ‘big ticket’ areas rather than being seen to hurt or disadvantage families who are already struggling.

“Many of the families who benefit probably don’t define as ‘poor,’ but most of them still have to manage household bills with great care; so the removal of the existing provision would cause genuine difficulty. And there is evidence that families in this category are often reluctant to use the ‘means tested’ route because of both personal pride and the knock-on effect it can have on areas of managing their budgets.

“At this stage this is an option, rather than a costed, beefed-up proposal. It cannot, of course, be ruled out completely. But in the short term I don’t think it is an option that Bradley will choose to run with.”

At the time of this magazine going to print, the NI Budget for 2018/19 had just been announced by the Secretary of State with no mention of any change to the current system. However, in a statement the next day to this magazine, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said: “The Department has recently commenced a review of the home-to-school transport policy and it is hoped that recommendations arising from the review will be subject to public consultation in late 2018/early 2019. There will be a range of options considered as part of the review, one of which will be financial sustainability.”

Thankfully, parents can breathe a sigh of relief for now, however it seems the idea has only been parked for the moment. It is still very possible that in a few new terms time, parents and carers will need to dig even deeper into their pockets to cover the cost of their child’s education.

*Figures quoted from Briefing On Northern Ireland Budgetary Outlook 2018-20 Report from Department of Finance.
**NICCY Cost of Education Report, published in September 2017
About the research: Survey of 985 adults with children living in Northern Ireland. Survey carried out by Ni4kids from 25 January until 2 February 2018.

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