Counties warn over funding for home to school transport due to ‘rural premium’ on delivering services

CCN Latest News, CCN News 2018 | 24 May 2018

England’s rural councils today warn it is becoming increasingly difficult to fund free 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) show 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.

Download an analysis of the figures here.

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.

Cllr Ian Hudspeth, County Councils Network spokesman for education and children’s services, and leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said:

“There is clear evidence that there are significant extra costs in delivering school transport services in rural county areas, with rurality a key issue exacerbated by a reduction in bus routes, and an increase in housing numbers. We pay a rural premium in delivering these transport services, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain subsidies. Regrettably, we have had little choice to cut back on free transport services for thousands of rural pupils, and tighten eligibility.

 “This is why the historic underfunding of county authorities must be addressed in a fairer funding settlement. Providing free transport to our schools is a much-valued service, yet it is one we can scarcely afford beyond our statutory duties.

 “We very much support the direction of travel laid out by government, but the rhetoric must be backed up with real, tangible change to the way councils are funded, with the recognition of the increased costs of delivering services in rural settings. We will continue to work with Ministers to ensure that the new formula funds councils in based on what they genuinely need to provide vital local services such as school transport.”

Notes to editor

–       The per head figures in this press release and in the breakdowns above are taken from section 251 outturn data published by the Department for Education, which show mainstream pre-16 mainstream home to school transport costs on a per pupil basis in 2016-17. This is calculated by taking a council’s yearly total net expenditure divided by the total number of school-age pupils in that area.

–       All school-age children qualify for free school transport if they go to their nearest suitable school and live at least two miles from the school if they are under eight, or three miles from the school if they are over eight years old. If there is no safe walking route to school, that child must be given free school transport, regardless of how far they live from a school.

–       The pupil figures referenced in this press release are based on responses from 20 county authorities.