I have undertaken some research into the extraordinary sums paid by local authorities for taxis to take pupils to and from school each day.
Sometimes councils spend more on school transport for one child than the annual school fees for Eton. The annual fees for Eton are £46,000 a year. With 190 school days a year, that’s £242 a day. I sent Freedom of Information requests asking for the “highest daily cost of home-to-school transport for any individual pupil in the financial year 2022/23.” Some costs for an individual child were over double the fees for Eton. For Camden it was £969 a day. Lincolnshire £650. Redbridge £630. Gloucestershire £603.92. East Sussex £577.40. Brighton and Hove £500. Dorset £481.65. Buckinghamshire £480.
It is not just a small number of extreme cases. Total spending is now over £1.6 billion a year. It is quite routine for the state to spend more on transport to and from school for a single pupil than the spending on actually providing the schooling itself (which is £7,460 per pupil this year).
How has this madness come about? Under the 1944 Education Act children of compulsory school age qualify for free school transport if the nearest school available is more than two miles away and the child is under eight. Or the school is more than three miles away and the child is eight or over.
At the time that must have seemed a reasonable and modest safeguard. Only the rich minority had motor cars – bus travel was much more extensive. We had a much larger number of much smaller schools. This was before the giant comprehensives formed from merging other schools. Even young children would typically be able to walk to school. But suppose (unusually) there wasn’t a school in the village where the child lived and the next village was several miles away? Why not provide a few pennies a day for a bus ride?
It could not have been envisaged that costs would reach the scale they have today. Gordon Brown significantly increased the entitlement for those on low incomes. For instance, for that category those aged 11 to 16 are eligible if they go to a school two to six miles away – if it’s one of their three nearest suitable schools.
A more flexible approach is needed. These statutory rights should be lifted and the principle of parental responsibility made dominant. In extreme cases, some discretionary help could be offered. It could be to help with the cost of petrol for the school run beyond a certain distance. Or funds to help with home education, perhaps for private tutors. Or a contribution towards the cost of independent education, sometimes a boarding school.
There are a couple of other categories. Often children in care are provided with school transport. This can be particularly expensive as there is the cost of an “escort” as well as the taxi. It can apply even when the child is in mainstream schooling with no special educational need. Even at secondary school where pupils typically travel independently. Imagine the stigma of getting into a taxi outside the school gates? It would be better for foster carers to be given this responsibility, perhaps being paid a bit better in return.
Then there are disabled children, which is a more complicated and challenging matter. I have written about this before. Parents should be given more choice. If the cost to the state is £10,000 a year for school passenger transport for a disabled child, why not give the parents £5,000 a year if they agree to undertake it and prefer this option? It would tend to be better for the child where this arrangement is possible – for instance an autistic child needing an atmosphere of calm and familiarity. But some parents might not be able to afford to take the time off work – the child may be at a special school a long distance away. They might be pleased to do so if they had the opportunity.
Previously I was told that councils could not provide parents with funding to take their own children to school as it would be illegal under EU procurement rules. That excuse is no longer valid.
High spending does not mean a high standard of service. Oxfordshire County Council was criticised by Ofsted for its failures regarding Special Educational Needs. This prompted Labour councillors to pull out of the coalition with the Lib Dems. The Council told me that it spent £18.3 million for school transport for 1,695 special needs pupils last year. That’s an average of £10,800 each.
While the Government should drastically revise the outdated regulations, it is also for councils to be less passive. Local authorities should be innovative in offering sensible alternatives to the relevant parents. Thousands of children currently have school run arrangements that are miserable as well as ludicrously expensive for the taxpayer.
A final thought. How many of the councils spending all this money on taxis have declared a “climate emergency”?
Anyway, below is the list of responses from councils regarding the highest daily transport cost for an individual pupil last year: